“I am only defending human rights. I am only living out my faith, upholding life and the dignity of the Filipino people.” – Pastor June Ver Mangao
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — Pastor June Ver Mangao has been serving as pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) chapel in Mabitac, Laguna since 2011.
Mangao set up the Community Center for Parents and Children’s Development, providing free education services to poor UCCP members who are not included in the government’s the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino program.
For carrying out his church’s mission, the 31-year-old pastor was threatened and harassed by state agents several times.
In August, while Mangao was visiting Church members in several villages affected by typhoon Maring, two men “interviewed” several individuals, asking about the pastor’s name, physical features, and other details about his person.
On August 20, between 10:00 to 11:00 a.m., two men on board a motorcycle went to the house of UCCP member Deborah Olarte in Masikap village. The men did not introduce themselves but one of them said that he is a resident of Paagahan village and asked for the cost of baptism service of the church. The men asked for the pastor’s name, to which Olarte replied “Pastor June Ver.” They asked if the pastor was at the chapel and Olarte replied that the pastor was away. One of the men asked if the pastor would be available on Saturday; Olarte answered she did not know.
The two men then proceeded to the residence of another UCCP member, Arsenia Agira, in Paagahan village. One of the men introduced himself as a member of the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu), a paramilitary unit under the supervision of the Philippine Army. He said his wife is a UCCP member in Infanta, Quezon and would like to attend church service in Mabitac. Agira said there are other UCCP churches in various municipalities and villages in Quezon and Laguna. She advised them to attend church closest to where they live. The man who introduced himself as a Cafgu member asked questions about the pastor in Mabitac such as his name, the province he came from and, where he and his family live. Agira said all she knew was that the pastor is from Mindanao.
Later, the same men visited the house of Susana Palentinos, a deacon of the UCCP in Mabitac. Palentinos owns apartment units for rent. The two men claimed they were policemen and were looking for an apartment to rent. The men said a local policeman directed them to her. The men asked whether Palentinos is also a UCCP member and if she attends church service at the UCCP in Mabitac. The men also asked her if she knew the pastor. The men gave a description of the said pastor. Palentinos denied knowing the pastor. One of the men asked if she has a picture of the pastor; this made Palentinos suspicious.
On the same day, Mangao was at the UCCP in Luisiana, Laguna. At past 6:00 in the evening, an unregistered number called him on his cellphone. He answered the phone and asked who the caller was. The male voice on the other line replied, “Why? Who are you?” Mangao told the caller, “You called up my number so I want to know your name.” The male voice replied, “That is not important. Aren’t you Pastor Mangao?” The pastor ended the call.
On August 22, Palentinos and her husband visited the pastor and informed him about the two unidentified men who were asking about him. Later that day, Mangao visited Olarte to inquire if she encountered a similar incident. The pastor took note of Olarte’s accounts of the men’s visit.
Mangao decided to call Rev. Victor Paller, Minister for Northeast Southern Tagalog Conference of the UCCP to inform him about what happened. That night, members of the UCCP did not leave the pastor to ensure his safety. Early morning of the following day, August 23, Paller accompanied Mangao to a safer location.
On the evening of August 23, Olarte’s husband Fedi noticed that a blue motorcycle stopped in front of the chapel. On board the motorcycle were two men whose faces were covered by their helmets. The motorcycle, a blue Kawasaki Barako had no plate number, having only the sign “for registration.” The motorcycle-riding men did not stay long. Fedi remembered it was the same motorcycle used by the men who were looking for Mangao on August 20.
On August 25, church members noticed an unidentified man enter the chapel. At first, the man sat on the front row pew but later moved to the back row as churchgoers were coming in. The man was seen using his cellphone, and left when the church service started.
On August 29, UCCP pastors, led by Bishop Arturo Asi and Conference Minister Rev. Victor Paller, conducted a dialog with Mabitac Mayor Ronald Sana. The UCCP delegation narrated the incidents targeting Mangao and the unidentified men who claimed to be members of the police or Cafgu.
Sana then summoned Mabitac Police Chief Supt. Sonieza. Sonieza confirmed that the two men are intelligence agents of the 1st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army under the command of Col. Jose Augusto Villareal. Another police officer named Jackie Bartolome added that these intelligence agents were verifying the pastor’s “connections with leftist groups.” The Mayor and police refused to give the names of the two military intelligence agents.
Meanwhile, a delegation of pastors and interns from the UCCP National Office left the compound of the South Luzon Jurisdiction to return to Quezon City. One of the delegates reported via text messages that two men riding-in-tandem on a blue Kawasaki were following them until they reached Antipolo, Rizal. The pastors believed that the men followed the vehicle of the UCCP National office because they thought that Mangao was on board. That time, Pastor June Ver, who did not participate in the dialogue with the Mayor, was with other UCCP members in a secured place.
In an interview with Bulatlat.com, Mangao said this was not the first time that he experienced harassment from suspected state agents.
Sometime in the last week of November 2011, Mangao said that when he fetched UCCP Pastor Rodel Canja in Tanay, Rizal, two men on board a motorcycle tailed them. One of the men was wearing camouflage shorts and the other was wearing a pair of jeans. “They were taking pictures of us,” Mangao said.
When he got back to Mabitac on the same day, he saw a man in front of the chapel. Later that night, he saw the man banging the gate of the chapel. Mangao then decided to leave the place and go to a secure place.
Mangao said he also received text messages from unidentified individuals. He received messages such as, “Pastor, mag-ingat ka dyan. May aswang dyan.” (Pastor, take care. There is a monster there.) “When I called up the numbers, nobody answered and ended the calls,” he said.
No change under Aquino
“I am only defending human rights,” Mangao said. “I am only living out my faith, upholding life and the dignity of the Filipino people.”
Mangao was designated as the chairman of the Community Ministries Committee of the Northeast Southern Tagalog Conference of the UCCP. One of his focuses is the prison ministry at the Laguna Provincial Jail. Mangao visits political prisoners and organized support for their court hearings.
“This only proves that the Aquino administration is not sincere in resolving human rights violations,” Mangao said.
In a statement, Bishop Asi said, “Pastor June Ver and the Conference have no other inkling as to the reason why he is being threatened, harassed and intimidated other than his commitment with the UCCP to defend the poor and the oppressed.”
“As Christians, we clearly see the life-threatening experiences of Pastor June Ver as being similar to what the authorities did to our Lord Jesus Christ when he preached and worked for the liberation of the poor and oppressed of his time,” Asi said.
Pastor Joel Tendero, program coordinator of the Southern Luzon Jurisdiction of the UCCP, said that human rights violations continue under the Aquino administration. “Our pastors are threatened through text messages,” Tendero told Bulatlat.com.
Under the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, more than 18 UCCP members were killed, one disappeared, three were ambushed and wounded and four were arrested, detained and tortured. In June 2011, the UCCP filed damage suit against Arroyo and several military officers.
Under the Aquino administration, two UCCP leaders have been killed — Rabenio Sungit and Jimmy Liguyon.
“Why are they targeting us?” Tendero asked. “Is it because of our church mission to care for the poor and the oppressed? Is it because of our programs caring for the environment, defending human rights?”
“Aquino is only using his popularity to conceal human rights violations but that would not last. Our church members, most of whom belong to the poor, do not see any change under his administration,” Tendero said.
The UCCP deemed the harassment against Mangao as part of Aquino’s counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan.