World Council of Churches calls for the immediate release of illegally detained, tortured health workers in the Philippines

Christian leaders around world distressed at Philippines arrests

Maurice Malanes and Peter Kenny

Manila/Geneva (ENI). Christian leaders around the world have condemned the arrest in the Philippines of a church official and other health workers in the southeast Asian country, and say they are worried about reports of torture being inflicted on those held.

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, joined other church leaders in expressing his concerns in an 11 February letter addressed to Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and members of her cabinet. Tveit called for the immediate release of those detained.

Tveit said the World Council of Churches is deeply concerned to have received a report of the arrest by members of Philippines army and police of Dr Alex Montes, a staff member of the United Churches of Christ in the Philippines, and a member of the Community Medicine Development Foundation, plus 42 other health workers.

"I am distressed by the reported news that the detainees have been subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment amounting to torture and that they have been deprived of their basic human rights while in custody," said Tveit.

The general secretary of the UCCP, Bishop Eliezer M. Pascua, has urged church leaders around the world to write to officials in his country about the arrests. Pascua said Montes was, "a victim of illegal arrest, disappearance and detention".

The United Church of Canada said it is joining its Philippine partners in appealing to the government to free the 43 health workers, whom security forces detained after accusing them of being members of a communist guerrilla army.

"We join our partners and many international groups in calling on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to immediately order the release of the 43 health care workers who are now in illegal detention," Omega Bula, who heads the Justice, Global and Ecumenical Relations Unit of the United Church of Canada in a 10 February statement.

The Rev. Michael Wallace, general secretary of the Geneva-based World Student Christian Federation, said to Ecumenical News International, "The World Student Christian Federation has long been aware and concerned about the extra-judicial killings that have been perpetrated by factions of the military in the Philippines against young people, students, trade unionist and people opposing Ms Arroyo's government."

Wallace and the chairperson of the WCSF, Horacio Mesones, said in an 11 February statement they believe the actions in the Philippines are "intimidation tactics to frighten and weaken those who struggle for human rights and to alleviate the sufferings of the marginalised". They said they are aimed at "the opposition forces engaged in campaigning for the presidential election of May 2010" which they described as a political threat "to those currently in power".

The UCCP leader said that Montes had been conducting a training course when he was arrested, and had received reports that, "more than 300 military and police raided the retreat centre at gunpoint". He noted that the soldiers and police arrested the 43 participants on the course before even searching the premises, and said they were looking for a person called, "Mario Condes".

It is thought those arrested are being held at Camp Capinpin in the province of Rizal about 60 kilometres (36 miles) m east of Manila, the Philippines' capital. "But access has been denied to lawyers, family, colleagues and pastors who have tried to visit them," said the UCCP general secretary.

Tveit noted that Montes is a committed church worker and a long-time staff member of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, a member of the WCC, a grouping that represents more than 560 million Christians in 349 churches world-wide.

In his letter to President Arroyo, Tveit noted that he is familiar with the UCCP and its leadership, and that Montes, who served as the coordinator of the Health Mission of the Christian Witness and Service programme of the UCCP, had been instrumental in developing community-based health programmes in the Philippines.

"It is therefore more than unfortunate that Dr Alex Montes and his co-workers were arrested and detained while they were involved in legitimate activities of humanitarian services as part of their Christian witness," Tveit wrote.

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