After the Rev. Larry Emery became involved in his presbytery’s international partnership, the victims of human rights abuses took on a human face.

Sacramento Presbytery entered into a partnership with the Southeast Luzon Conference of the United Church of the Philippines (UCCP) in the late 1990s. The UCCP’s stand for human rights has resulted in several Filipino lay and clergy leaders being abducted, imprisoned or killed.

“I’ve always believed that foreign policy must be fair and that human rights must be respected,” said Emery, pastor of Walnut Grove (CA) Community Presbyterian Church. “But it was more of an academic perspective, though from a heartfelt belief and a wholesome theology. Now it’s about real people I have met and prayed with.”

One of these, the Rev. Noli Capulong, was killed in 2006 by two gunmen on a motorcycle. Capulong, a staff member with the United Church of the Philippines, had been speaking up for the rights of fisher folk and small landowners. Other politically motivated murders have also been committed by people on motorcycles, Emery said.

A United Nations investigation has linked some of the murders to elements in the military and police that are associated with the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. In addition to church leaders, labor leaders, farmers, human rights leaders and journalists have also been targets.

Another friend of Emery’s, the Rev. Berlin Guerrero, was abducted by in May 2007 and held in prison until last September when he was released by an appellate court. Guerrero had been a community organizer and outspoken advocate for social justice causes. He was missing for 12 hours before his family knew what had happened to him.

Guerrero’s captors tortured him and demanded that he give information about leaders of church, labor and grassroots organization and confess to being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. He was told that his wife and family would suffer the same fate if he failed to cooperate.

“On the one hand,” Emery said of Guerrero’s release, “I was pleased and happy for him and his family, On the other hand, there was a sense that it was incomplete. Where’s the justice? Where’s the recourse? There was still a sense of injustice amid the joy of having him released.”

While Guerrero was jailed, Emery and others lobbied the United States government to intervene on his behalf.

“It has been suggested that international pressure in general and that focused on Berlin’s case are why he was ultimately treated well in prison and released,” Emery said.

Guerrero was allowed visitation from family members and others, including several other representatives from the PC(USA). He also led worship services and Bible studies with his fellow inmates.

Last June, the PC(USA)’s General Assembly approved a resolution on the human rights situation in the Philippines. It urges Presbyterians to become aware of the situation in the Philippines, participate in partnerships and immersion experiences, aid those who suffer from the violence and advocate for the human rights of the Filipino people. It asks that the U.S. Congress condition military aid to the Philippines on improvements in the Philippine military’s human rights record. It also directs the stated clerk of the General Assembly to write a letter to the president of the Philippines asking her to use her authority to stop human rights abuses by the military.

Berlin Guerrero with family members raising their arms in celebration.
Berlin Guerrero celebrates with family members after his release from prison.

Emery has spent considerable time trying to raise the consciousness of Presbyterians and others in the United States about the situation in the Philippines. In addition to speaking out himself, he has accompanied visitors from the Philippines who have spoken to churches, universities, human rights organizations and Filipino-American groups. Some have gone to Washington to share their stories with members of Congress.

“Congress bears a burden they need to address,” Emery said. “To what extent should the U.S. government be sending money to a government that has been credibly charged with killing people who have been arrested for disagreeing with the (Filipino) government?”

In 2007 Congress decided that $2 million of its $30 million appropriation to the Philippines’ military would not be sent unless the country complied with certain human rights guidelines. Emery says the expenditure of the conditional money was to be based on a State Department report that was never prepared.

“Congress saw this as a warning, but in the Philippines it was seen as a reprieve,” Emery said.

Emery is hoping for more progress with Congress this year.

“As a Christian, I cannot turn my back and say this is not my concern,” he said. Military aid to the Philippines “is something that is being done in my name and in all our names.”

While Emery said that recently there’s been a decrease in politically motivated murders, he noted that disappearances and detentions have increased. One pastor, Edwin Egar, was abducted by several armed men on Feb. 11, while General Assembly moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow, his family and PC(USA) staff were visiting the Philippines. The pastor was blindfolded, interrogated and then released after about five hours. The visiting Presbyterians participated in a news conference conducted by the UCCP about the abduction.

The UCCP advocates peaceful change in the Philippine, UCCP Bishop Eliezer Pascua said in an interview during last year’s General Assembly. The government, he said, fails to differentiate between the UCCP’s nonviolent approach and the violent tactics of some guerilla groups.

“This is one reason why we are easily mistaken by the government, the military or police as leftists, communists and terrorists,” he said.

The support of the PC(USA), both through its advocacy and official statements, has been helpful to the UCCP’s cause, Pascua said.

“The UCCP is not seen as just a small denomination, but because of these international connections the government realizes we have clout and influence.”

Pascua himself travels internationally talking about the situation in the Philippines. With the help of PC(USA) leaders, he has been able to speak to members of the U.S. Senate’s subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs during the PC(USA) Washington Office’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

Pascua said his faith in God sustains him and others in the UCCP.

“God is with us,” he said. “We are made more than conquerors.”

This story first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of World Mission Highlights, a twice-yearly magazine published by Presbyterian World Mission. For a free subscription, visit the Highlights Web page.