Sister Patricia Fox, (Photo by Jire Carreon), Father Michel de Gigord (Photo by Melo Acuna), Father Brian Gore, (Photo by Melo Acuna) - La Croix International
They went to different places in the Philippines and during different periods in the country's history, but they encountered very similar situations and challenges.
In the news recently was the departure of Australian missionary Sister Patricia Fox who was declared an undesirable alien by the government for joining the cause of poor farmers and workers.
The nun had made the Philippines her home for 27 years. She said she has fond memories of the people, especially those on the periphery, the people living on the edge. She said she got involved in projects geared to bring livelihoods to farmers and help them in their advocacy for rights to their lands, livelihoods, peace, justice and security.
"All these are universal human rights which the church sees as integral," she said. For her efforts, the government did not renew her missionary visa and forced her to leave the country by not extending her temporary papers.
Getting in jail for the poor
In 1969, another Australian missionary also went to the Philippines.
Columban Father Brian Gore, who was then only 25 years old, arrived in the country with no idea what was waiting for him.
It was before former dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law across the archipelago. Little did the young priest know that what awaited him were poor farm workers in sugar plantations of Negros Occidental province where he later became chaplain of the Federation of Free Farmers.
"I’d been told they had no money to buy medicine," Father Gore recalled. They even considered themselves as the property of the landowners. He went on to organize Basic Christian Communities, which were later accused by the Philippine military of being "fronts" for communist guerrillas.
Father Gore said that during those years, church people who worked in poor communities were always suspected of being rebel organizers. "But we could not just tell people that their priests were with them in prayers," he said.
The priest said missionaries get into trouble because they come from a different background. "When you see poverty, see people dying without medicine, it’s entirely a different thing," he said. Father Gore could not help but challenge the status quo.
Churchgoers, those who attended Mass on Sundays, warned the priest that the poor would use the church to further their cause. "I told them it’s about time for farmers to benefit from the church as the rich had made use of the institution for so many years," he said.
The church in Negros province during that time was caught between the rebels and the military in a conflict that has continued for almost five decades now. For taking a stand, Father Gore and two other missionaries, Irish priest Niall O’Brien and Filipino Father Vicente Dangan, and six lay workers were put in jail.
They were only released after international pressure on the Marcos government. Father Gore continues to work with the poor in Negros. "I did not come to change the Philippines, the Philippines changed me," said the 75-year old missionary.
Father Michel de Gigord of the Paris Foreign Mission used to be the chaplain at Mindanao State University in the war-torn city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. Now 78 years old, the priest has been abducted twice while working in Mindanao.
While working in the predominantly Muslim university, Father Gigord visited almost every home on the campus. It was during these visits that he learned of people's fears.
"We created communities inside the campus and called on people to stand and fight for their rights," recalled the priest. For his advocacy, Father Gigord received his share of death threats. A top government official threatened to have him killed. He was kidnapped for 21 days but was released after being told to leave the country for good.
After 21 days in France, the priest returned but was again abducted with his niece who was over for a visit. "They wanted to rape my niece but I said they would have to kill me," he said. They were released after signing a document that states he would pay 50,000 pesos (about US$1,000 today) a month for protection.
Father Gigord left Marawi and worked in the nearby city of Iligan for ten years where another attempt to kidnap him failed. He said those in power hated him because he was "meddling" in the political affairs of the region. "If you tell me that you should not be involved in politics, then you cannot do anything because everything is politics," he said.
"You cannot take away politics from human rights and you cannot simply say 'we have to pray,'" he said. "Even studying the Bible is political," added the priest.
Melo Acuna, Manila, Philippines