Facing sedition charges, priest in Philippines fights on

IN 2020, SEVERAL CATHOLIC CHURCH LEADERS IN THE PHILIPPINES WERE ACCUSED OF SEDITION for allegedly conspiring with opposition politicians to undermine the government of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.

In February 2020, the charges levelled against the politicians and four Catholic bishops—Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco, and Bishop Teodoro Bacani—were dropped. The Philippines’ Justice department declared that there was no evidence supporting police claims that the bishops intended to commit seditious acts. Charges against another Catholic priest, Robert Reyes, and La Salle Brother Armin Luistro were also dismissed.

Jesuit Father Alberto Alejo and Divine Word missionary Father Flaviano Villanueva pleaded not guilty to charges of “conspiracy to commit sedition” before a Manila court on October 22, 2020. The two continue to face what they described as “made up” charges. They pleaded not guilty before the court, saying they “will continue our pursuit of truth and justice, and our duty to God to fight for the oppressed.” The two strongly oppose government-sanctioned extra-judicial killings of drug dealers and drug addicts. Father Villanueva spoke with Aid to the Church in Need about the “persecution” of those who dare to challenge the government.

“‘Persecution,’ both in the broad and the strict sense, is present in the country, especially in the past five years. The reality of persecution in the country takes so many forms. The most prominent form of persecution are the killings, and when I say the killings, I mean the constant attacks of the so-called powers-that-be on the marginalized.

“Another group of people who are persecuted are those who speak the truth because of their prophetic role, their advocacy for justice—primarily because they follow the Gospel. These people who advocate for justice and peace, human rights, and of course the teachings of Jesus to be with the poor, are targeted because of their commitment to their faith. I can honestly say that Filipino Catholics and Christians in the Philippines, including myself, are being persecuted.

“In 2015, [before the administration of President Duterte took office], we opened a center for the homeless. We, meaning the Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation of the Society of the Divine Word Central (Philippine) Province. Being tasked to lead, I created a center that provides dignified care for the homeless. It went smoothly until the Duterte regime came in. That is when I saw the plight of the widows and orphans, victims of the government’s ‘war on drugs.’

“When I started taking care of the widows and orphans, I noticed that I gradually became unpopular because of my views about drug-related killings. The attacks and the persecution came first on social media and, sadly, even among friends and families.

“There were physical attacks in the form of persons following me. The worst was when we found out that there had been at least three people on three different occasions trying to break into my office. It was caught on film and that was when we decided to come out in public March 11, 2020.

Father Villaneuva (photo by Vincent Go)

“Why do they have to resort to this? We are just here to tell the truth, and basically this is our sacred duty as Christians to help the poor. It would even be more of a scandal if we remained quiet amid these evils of killings and human rights abuses.

“The persecution didn’t stop with the physical threats. It escalated to me being linked with a group of people who were branded as ‘seditionists.’ It is one of four cases I am facing, and this I believe was due to (me and my fellow priests) speaking the truth and providing sanctuary to truth-tellers. The four cases include inciting sedition, harboring of criminals, and actual sedition. Those who are persecuting us are fellow Catholics, or at least those who claim to be believers of the faith, but obviously they are believing in a different faith.

“I would have to admit that I felt disturbed and that even resulted in a crisis. Should I pursue this? Should I continue my denouncements of the killings? Grounding myself on that reality and understanding that reality through listening to the voices of those under my care, I continued. I cannot but continue despite the danger, especially after my mother accepted the fact that I am a priest.

—Joe Torres