Militarization, harassment of nuns mar Pope’s visit to Leyte

“Why are the Aquino government’s police brutes so intent on preventing us from putting to practice what the Pope himself has preached?” – Sr. Noemi Dagala

By Marya Salamat
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Tacloban City captured the attention and the desire of Pope Francis to show solidarity with the survivors of the strongest supertyphoon to make landfall in history. “I felt that I have to be here,” he said during the mass, “a little bit late,” he admitted, to warm applause of the pilgrims.

But his trip was unfortunately cut short by another typhoon. Pope Francis, according to his spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi, was saddened by the need to cut short his January 17 visit to Leyte. He was forced to fly away from the province on board the papal plane Shepherd One by 1 p.m.

Of his scheduled itinerary, he just managed to lead the Holy Mass at Tacloban airport, participated in by an estimated two million pilgrims wearing uniform raincoats. He still got a glimpse of Tacloban City roads as his mobile drove to Palo, Leyte, where he lunched with some Yolanda survivors.

Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) survivors, indigenous people, environmental advocates and church workers under the People's Committee to Welcome the Pope in Eastern Visayas joined in a 'Gathering of the Poor' on the eve of Pope Francis' arrival in Tacloban City, ground zero of Yolanda. Together, we enjoined the Holy Father to stand with our calls for justice and accountability--and to divest Vatican from fossil fuels as a step further in the pontiff's climate activism. (Photo by Dexter  Aserdano)
Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) survivors, indigenous people, environmental advocates and church workers under the People’s Committee to Welcome the Pope in Eastern Visayas joined in a ‘Gathering of the Poor’ on the eve of Pope Francis’ arrival in Tacloban City, ground zero of Yolanda. (Photo by Dexter Aserdano)

But he did not get the chance anymore to mingle with the people and storm survivors as he did not get the chance to get off the pope mobile when they paused briefly at the Pope Francis Center for the Poor, which he blessed from his mobile. Reports say he had stopped for 10 minutes, unscheduled, to visit and bless a family.

After the papal plane took off from Leyte at 1 p.m., the wind and rain brought about by typhoon Amang reportedly grew further in strength. The road from Tacloban airport to Palo, Leyte started to get snarled in traffic. As of this writing, the pilgrims are walking the roads to where the vehicles were parked far away from the airport. The Tacloban roads had been closed to vehicular traffic.

Doubly insulated?

Did the Aquino government’s “paranoid” security preparations and the typhoon combine to try to insulate the Pope from the real situation post-Yolanda?

Days before the papal visit, militarization reared its head in the storm-ravaged region. A day before Pope Francis arrived, the religious sisters from the Sisters’ Association in Mindanao (SAMIN), for example, said they were harassed by elements of the Philippine National Police (PNP) while they were headed to a candle-lighting and liturgical activity in San Jose district, Tacloban City to pray for the safe arrival and travel of the pontiff.

BULATLAT FILE PHOTO: Sr. Noemi Degala at Tacloban during the People Surge activities marking the 1st year anniversary of supertyphoon Yolanda's landfall (Photo by M. Salamat / Nov 2014)
BULATLAT FILE PHOTO: Sr. Noemi Degala at Tacloban during the People Surge activities marking the 1st year anniversary of supertyphoon Yolanda’s landfall (Photo by M. Salamat / Nov 2014)
“We were stopped and held up for an hour, while the police peppered us with questions and accusations. They claimed we do not have proper documents and coordination with the archdiocese when even the Archbishop John Du knows our mercy mission here in Leyte. We were even accused of being New People’s Army elements hiding in nun’s clothes!” said Sr. Noemi Degala, executive secretary of SAMIN.

The militarized security conditions have been widely reported in the media, but Sr. Degala was still shocked by what she calls as “brazen harassment of religious sisters.”

“We are not armed communist revolutionaries, and we are most certainly not terrorists!” she said.

SAMIN members, religious sisters hailing from various congregations, immersed with Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan)-affected communities in Tanauan and Palo towns before ceremonially handing over some donated hand tractors to local people’s organizations. If the papal visit to Palo, Leyte were not cut short, they would have taken part in the meeting of the religious with Pope Francis in the afternoon of January 17.

“Why are the Aquino government’s police brutes so intent on preventing us from putting to practice what the Pope himself has preached?” Degala asked. She reminded the “despotic security forces of the Aquino administration” that the Holy Father himself had said the concern for the poor is Gospel, not communism.

Repression and disaster in EV

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan – Eastern Visayas chapter (BAYAN-EV), a member of the People’s Welcome – EV, condemned the militarized and repressive security in Leyte, noting the ‘soft’ economic violence as well.

“A grand total of P30 million was spent by the Aquino government on the pomp, pageantry and overkill security for the Pope’s visit, said Rey Miranda, secretary general of BAYAN – EV.

Considering that the needs of Yolanda survivors are still unmet, Miranda said the P30 million ($682 thousand) should have been spent on the survivors instead of paying the estimated 20,000 police and military forces who, he said, swept the homes and establishments along the Pope’s route in Leyte and imposed various violations to the civil rights of the residents.

Aside from the nuns with SAMIN, Bulatlat.com also learned that six soldiers visited a non-government office helping Eastern Visayan peasants to ask the agency about their activities concerning the pope’s visit. Considering that the Armed Forces of the Philippines had reportedly misspent funds meant for disaster to building or renovating their offices instead, a staff of EVRAP complained that the six soldiers who went to their office in Palo, Leyte on Jan. 15 even wanted to get some of the repacked relief goods they were distributing to victims of typhoons Ruby and Seniang.

Miranda of Bayan-EV said they have been preparing and self-policing their ranks for the Pope’s visit. But he described the policies imposed by the Aquino administration upon Yolanda survivors as “too much.”

On top of the no-build zone implemented against the mostly fisherfolk residents of Tacloban City, on the occasion of the papal visit, the government implemented no-sail zones, no-market days, transportation rerouting and travel bans.

“Aquino imposed these policies with no compensatory relief whatsoever, damaging the livelihood of the poor, especially the survivors of Yolanda, and the subsequent Typhoon Ruby (Hagupit) and Seniang (Jangmi),” Miranda said. ()

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