FAST BACKWARD: Davao priests under attack

Fast Backward by Antonio V. FigueroaOver the past seven months, three Catholic priests were murdered.

First to fall was retired 72-year-old Fr. Marcelito Paez, an activist cleric assigned in Jaen, Nueva Ecija after dropping off a political detainee who was just released; he was gunned down on December 5, 2017.

Four months later, Fr. Mark Ventura, a known anti-mining activist, was killed by a gunman inside a gymnasium after saying Mass in Gattaran, Cagayan province on April 29, 2018. Last June 10, 2018, Fr. Richmond Nilo, while preparing to celebrate the Mass, was shot through a window at a chapel in Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija.

In Davao region, where insurgents were known to operate extensively during Martial Law, only one priest was killed, though there was a string of murders committed against secular priests who completed their priesthood at Davao’s only major Catholic seminary.

The near-immaculate slate against priests being killed, in a way, could be attributed to the support many religious men and nuns clandestinely extended to the underground movement.

On March 19, 1987, after attending a conference held in a village in Mawab, Compostela Valley, Fr. Roberto Salac, who graduated from St. Francis Regional Major Seminary (Remase) at Catalunan Grande, Davao City, was attacked by unidentified Army servicemen while with fellow peace process advocates. He died due to blood loss.

Two years later, Fr. Rudy Tulibas, an alumnus of Remase then assigned with the prelature of Digos City, was held hostage on November 18, 1989 at the San Roque Parish in Manila, by a project contractor renovating the church. Along with the parish priest, he was held hostage for seven hours until law enforcers convinced the suspect he would meet Jaime Cardinal Sin.

On February 26, 1991, Fr. Alejandrino Abing of Davao City, while on his way to visit his sick father on Siquijor Province, was shot dead in Cebu City. Reports said he was slain for giving “invocations during Alsa Masa (anti-communist vigilante group) meetings in Davao.”

That same year, on November 14, 1991, Fr. Nerlito Satur, another Remase graduate assigned in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, and an anti-logging crusader, was shot dead by armed men in Guinoyoran, Bukidnon, on board his motorcycle after attending a village fiesta.

Six years later, 81-year-old Fr. Paul Finster, a Jesuit, was held hostage on November 21, 1995, and stabbed inside the Ma-a Rehabilitation Center, Davao City, while preparing for his Sunday Mass. The inmate wanted the priest as cover for his escape, but the other prisoners, irate at seeing the priest injured, pounced the attacker and restrained him.

In colonial times, peace and order condition was more desirable. There was no recorded attack committed but a missionary, due to huge waves, was drowned in Davao Oriental while attempting to cross the sea to reach another mission. A hostage incident also took place.

On September 26, 1898 when a revolt erupted in Caraga, Fr. Manuel Valles, the local superior, “was taken prisoner and forced to march most of the distance to Baganga. But before they reached the town, the rebels turned against their own leader, shot him, and released the Jesuit.”

Fr. Manuel Rosello, S.J., who was in Mati, Davao Oriental at that time, wrote about the impact of the Caraga uprising. In a letter dated October 31, 1898 and postmarked Veruela, Agusan del Sur, he narrated the ordeal he had to undergo so as not to be caught in the revolt.

“To flee from Mati to Sigaboy, I had to go through, for special reasons, one thick forest I had never crossed before. I followed a narrow tortuous path traced by the footprints of [natives] and an occasional carabao, once in a while a horse going through. But about midway in the trail, I saw that it was heading toward a ravine opening at the bottom of a high mountain. In this puzzle, I discovered separate paths under the trees. But, looking at the height of the mountain, I began to lose hope that even one of them would link the anchorage at Balete to Kuabu where I was headed. Nevertheless, I continued climbing toward the peak, and there all I saw all [the natives] coming together. I decided to go down to the plain on the other side of the mountain, but always followed a serpentine trail through the thick forest.”

It is ironic that despite the heated feuds raging between the natives and Moro settlers in Davao region, the diplomacy adopted by the missionaries in infiltrating uncharted territories did not cost them any death. There were instances of fierce skirmishes that placed them at the center of conflict but, with the intervention of Divine Providence, they were able to convince the discordant parties to settle their issues amicably and without bloodshed.

This scenario is hugely different in our times when literacy, at the very least, should have allowed people to know which is right from wrong. Unlike in colonial times when the matter about food was easily addressed by the handiness of fruits, staples, and vegetables everywhere, today people equate struggle with issues that end in violence and, worse, death.

At a time when life has become so cheap, co-existence has become a strange arrangement.