Church leaders raise human rights concerns over militarized lockdown

Church leaders of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) aired concern over the threats to human rights that may result from the government’s “militarized” bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

This comes after President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entirety of Luzon under an “enhanced community quarantine” on March 16, 2020.

The order has effectively insulated households, prohibited mass transportation and suspended all modes of travel among jurisdictions to regulate the population’s mobility and, thus, the spread of the virus. It has also prohibited mass gatherings, including rallies, and involved massive data gathering.

In its wake, the lockdown has mobilized thousands of police and military personnel to enforce the measures across the eight regions of Luzon, the island group where over half of Filipinos reside.

Rev. Cesar Hilario, chairperson for South Central Luzon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente’s National Priests Organization, said the quarantine order was a “militarist response” to a health pandemic.

“We express serious alarm on the implications of the heightened deployment of state security forces to enforce community quarantine procedures across the region,” he said. “We know from responses of a similar nature that state forces are inclined to trample human rights and suppress legitimate concern for people’s rights.”

Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) vice-chairperson Rev. Grace Masegman aired a similar apprehension. PCPR is an ecumenical organization of church people from Catholic and Protestant churches.

“Instead of keeping a massive state security force on the ground, the government should instead reinforce public health services and deploy health workers to our communities. We fear a militarized lockdown would inflict human rights violations even faster than COVID-19 infect people,” Masegman, also an IFI priest, said.

Duterte, in his “enhanced” initiative, widened the coverage of a March 12 declaration to place the National Capital Region under a monthlong lockdown.

The South Central Luzon Bishops Conference (SCLBC), in a pastoral letter released on March 13, warned about the possible dangers of putting NCR under a militarized lockdown.

Addressing the clergy and faithful, the bishops said everyone must observe vigilance in upholding human rights.

The statement said: “We … encourage everyone to stay vigilant. We have never before quarantined Metro Manila due to a disease. We understand that this will involve law enforcement, and very much hope that it will also involve increasing our overall capacity for preventive and curative measures benefitting everyone. Always be reminded that healthcare – that life – is our right, regardless of our ethnicity, belief, social class, political affiliation and SSOGIE. Defend your rights when you are deprived of them.”

The pastoral letter was signed by eight bishops, headed by conference chairperson Bishop Rowel Arevalo. The SCLBC covers the provinces of Bataan, Bulacan, Rizal, Pampanga, Cavite, Laguna, Romblon, Mindoro, Palawan, Marinduque, Quezon, Batangas, Camarines Sur, Masbate, as well as the Greater Manila Area.

Ramento Project for Rights Defenders (RPRD) board chairperson Bishop Ronelio Fabriquier said the militarized lockdown of Luzon undermined civil and political rights and placed the island group under threat.

“The people question the government’s decision of a Luzon-wide lockdown. As we all know, the government is not tolerant of those who criticize its actions, and that is where the danger to human rights arises,” the bishop said.

Rev. Jonash Joyohoy, RPRD executive director, said the implication of the militarized lockdown to the safety of those who express disagreement with it and those critical of the government was worrisome.

“Throughout the country, violent attacks against human rights defenders have taken place with impunity, and this condition could quickly be used for further aggressive attacks against them,” the priest lamented.

“While we must ensure that the poor and the most vulnerable are protected from the COVID-19 pandemic, church people must also stay vigilant and resist militarist schemes to exploit this crisis as a tool that threatens and endangers human rights,” Joyohoy added.

Photo by Nonoy Lacza/Business Mirror

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