By RITCHE T. SALGADO, O.Carm
MANILA – Sicut Christus Vivit. (As Christ Lives)
This is the motto that has guided Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of the Diocese of San Carlos in Negros Island.
Despite this Christian mindset, he faces challenges and receives criticism for championing the marginalized and speaking out on issues affecting them.
For example, Bishop Alminaza was red-tagged in February 22 by former government officials Lorraine Badoy and Jeffrey Celiz in their program “Laban Kasama ang Bayan” that airs on SMNI News Channel.
SMNI is owned by one of the FBI’s most wanted, Pastor Apollo Quiboloy. According to the FBI’s website, he is wanted for “conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion and sex trafficking of children; sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion; conspiracy; and bulk cash smuggling.”
He is also a known ally of former President Rodrigo Duterte.
On March 1, Prosecutor Flosemer Chris Gonzales, spokesperson of the Legal Cooperation Cluster of the Western Visayas Regional Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (RTF6-ELCAC), was quoted in posters spread by the 303rd Infantry Brigade, echoing Badoy and Celiz’s red-tagging of Bishop Alminaza.
Amid the government’s red-tagging, Bishop Alminaza continues to earn the support of human rights groups and religious communities locally and internationally.
Peter Murphy, the chairperson of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, said in a statement, “ICHRP supports the work of Bishop Alminaza and shares his conviction that pursuing peace should not be one-sided, militarized or highly politicized.”
The Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform, an ecumenical church group, pointed out that “(w)hat Badoy, Celiz, and Gonzales are doing is putting the life of Bp. Alminaza in danger. Being red-tagged can lead to more serious human rights violations.” They expressed support for Bishop Alminaza who is also a spokesperson of the group Pilgrims for Peace. “We are one with him in his call for the resumption of the peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), and his appeal to free the political prisoners, including former priest Frank Fernandez.”
The statement was signed by Archbishop-Emeritus Antonio J. Ledesma, Rt. Revd. Rex B. Reyes Jr., Bishop Deogracias S. Iñiguez Jr., and Sr. Mary John Mananzan.
Recently, Bulatlat interviewed Bishop Alminaza and he shared his thoughts on red-tagging and his mission as the shepherd of one of the country’s most militarized dioceses.
Please tell us about your motto and how this defines the way you shepherd your diocese.
“Sicut Christus vivit” is my motto. “As Christ lives” in English. Taken from 1 John 2:6 – “He who says he abides in Christ ought to live as He lived.” But instead of using the past tense, “as He lived” I use the present tense, “as Christ lives” to signify that our basis or standard for deciding or acting is not just what Jesus Christ did in the past but as He – present in the midst of people who love each other or who are united in His name (cf. Mt 18:20) – would do it. This makes me favor a more participatory approach, taking time to consult, listen, and dialogue with our collaborators, with our people, especially those not often heard, in the margins, disadvantaged, oppressed, or persecuted. We value the perspectives, voices and contributions of each one, even those who disagree with us. Our ideal is to strive to make unity the point of departure and arrival of our every action or program. Today we call it synodality and its challenge to “enlarge the space of our tent” (cf. Is 54:2), that is, to be more inclusive.
Is this your first time to be red-tagged? Were there other instances?
I got an unverified confidential report before that the Armed Forces of the Philippines has included my name in its “order of battle.” But I consider this the first time that I am publicly linked with the CPP-NPA, and labeled as “demonic and diabolical.”
How did red-tagging affect your mission in the diocese? How did it affect your diocese, your priests, and pastoral workers?
For now, I did not allow it to affect my mission in the diocese. I continue to do what I need to do. It even inspires me to do even more. It even called the attention and awareness of a greater number of people both here and abroad. I and our diocese received more expressions of support which highlighted and even clarified further our mission and our various advocacies. I am particularly touched by the courageous support of my brother bishops, our priests and pastoral workers, and cause-oriented and ecumenical groups and movements.
What do you think is the danger of being red-tagged?
Based on what happened to others who have been red-tagged and got killed in the past, I am aware that it can also happen to me. But I am clear with my motivation and conviction. I am fully aware of what happened to Christ and the cost of following Him. Sicut Christus vivit!
Why do you engage yourself with social issues? Why do you take a stand?
Any Christian disciple worthy of that name cannot do otherwise. Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes, no. 1 is clear: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”
“Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation”(Justice in the World, Synod of Bishops 1971, #6)
PCPII calls for renewed and integral evangelization which includes both proclaiming the message of salvation and liberation.
Our source and motive for action are not from outside of us but from inside of us. It springs from our baptismal identity, reaffirmed and strengthened in confirmation and in my case, from a personal commitment to follow the Lord as His disciples expressed when I embraced the Sacred Orders as deacon, priest, and bishop.
No one and nothing can stop us from fulfilling that solemn promise!
How is the economic and political situation of the people in your diocese? As a church, how can we help in addressing their most basic needs?
Much of the feudal system is still embedded in the hacienda system. At the heart of our social problem in Negros is related to land for its ownership is only in the hands of a few families. The ones who hold political power are possessing economic power and vice versa. We have our own share of political dynasty. I don’t think we have a fair playing field in the exercise of our democratic processes. Land rights are very much linked with human rights!
The recent brutal and violent murder of Governor Roel Degamo, which killed eight innocent victims and wounded others right in his own residence, and the various issues that were brought to public attention in the succeeding investigation only confirmed what we have repeatedly espoused in our crusade and which Fr. Niall O’Brien, a Columban Missionary in Negros for 20 years, expressed it so well: “Violence has a source, and that source is injustice. Violence is the fruit of the tree of injustice and hatred is its evil flower. If we sow seeds of injustice, we reap violence. If we want to remove violence, we must first remove injustice.”
In a news article published by the Manila Bulletin on November 15, 2022, Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla was reported to have told the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that there is no culture of impunity in the Philippines. His exact words: “We will dispel the mistaken notion that there is a ‘culture of impunity’ in our country. We will not tolerate the denial of justice nor any violation of human rights.”
Yet in less than four months, he described the situation in Negros Oriental after the assassination of Gov. Roel Degamo and other killings in the province as a “seeming failure to bring culprits to punishment.” He was quoted by CNN Philippines on March 9, 2023 to have said, “What comes out is a pattern, a pattern of impunity that we did not sense before.… But now that this happened, the stories are beginning to make sense that there was a pattern of impunity within the area.”
It has now surfaced that political dynasties have private armies composed mainly of former army soldiers who were dishonorably discharged. There are indeed extra-judicial killings and they are related to illegal drugs and illegal gambling.
The Church is for integral development, integral peace. “We cannot continue the fake model of peace that is one-sided—using pseudo development, that is militarized and highly politicized. We all want a peace that is integral and inclusive, benefitting the common good—that uplifts the poor and promotes authentic development.”
The Church can greatly help when we form people how to live as brothers and sisters in community, cohesively organized to have a collective voice on matters that affect their lives, guided by clear Catholic Social Teachings.
Who or what inspires you to continue your social and pastoral mission?
As I mentioned in my reply to SMNI’s unfair judgments on us, “The demand to pursue peace is an echo of Jesus’ command to love. As your pastor, I cannot be silent amid violence and injustices.”
The God-made-Man that I chose to follow offered His life as a ransom for us all. He showed preferential love for the poor. Since He loved us to the end, even to the point of abandonment on the cross, taking upon Himself all that is not peace, not joy, not beautiful, not lovable, I recognize Him Crucified and Forsaken in all situations of pain, and suffering, wherever there is anguish, despair, sadness, separation, abandonment, torment, disappointment, failure. For authentic love is shown by how we treat and respond to the most vulnerable members of our community as well as of our common home.
Our battle cry in the diocese is “UBUNTU” – “I am because We are!” “How can one be happy when others are sad?” As one Body of Christ, the pain of one part is felt by the whole body just as the joy is experienced by the whole body.
Pope Francis is certainly a great inspiration for me, to “smell like the sheep” and to “go to the peripheries”.
What is your advice for our church/pastoral workers who are attacked because of their work or mission?
“Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid!” [Mt 14:27]
We should be brave in speaking for the truth on behalf of the victims of injustice.
Rather than consider what will happen to us if we continue in our commitment to taking the side of the victims of injustice, consider instead what will happen to the victims if we stop helping them.
We have only one life. Let’s live our life to the full in loving and serving God in our brothers and sisters, especially the most forsaken ones!
Let’s journey together, “enlarging the space of our tent!” (Is 54:2)
As regards those who engage in red-tagging, any words you would like to share with them?
We continue to ring our Church bells every 8 o’clock in the evening to call for conversion and repentance among others those responsible for the killings! Do not waste the precious blood of our Lord, which He shed on the Cross for you and me. Remember the golden rule: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you” for you will “reap what you sow”! (JJE, RVO)