A Columban priest murdered for saving Filipinos

Fr Rufus Halley who was shot dead in August 2001 in Mindanao where he was fostering dialogue between Muslims and Christians. - Photo: St Columbans Mission SocietyFr Rufus Halley who was shot dead in August 2001 in Mindanao where he was fostering dialogue between Muslims and Christians. - Photo: St Columbans Mission Society

It is over twenty years since the violent death of Fr Rufus Halley on 28 August 2001. He was a missionary of St Columbans Mission Society, my classmate and friend.

Born in Ireland, Fr Rufus was on his chosen assignment in the Prelature of Marawi, Mindanao, building bridges between Muslims and Christians. He was revered and respected as a prophet of peace by both communities.

Whenever we met in Manila, we would sit in the silence of the chapel in the Columban house, sharing our joys and sorrows, challenges and triumphs, fears and worries. We had both received threats for supporting the rights of the poor and opposing the evildoers. That is the lot of a missionary.

Over the years, many Columban missionaries like Fr Rufus have lived and worked among the poor and oppressed, bringing education and hope to countless people in the Philippines and countries all over the world. It is a long and sacred tradition for men and women, priests and lay people, to go on mission.

They leave families and friends for a life of dedication to justice in foreign lands. It is a commitment for life to bring the Gospel message of God’s love and justice, human dignity and rights to the poor. It is the path and life we have chosen. Like many others, Fr Rufus had answered that call.

Fr Rufus Halley in Mindanao, Philippines. - Photo: St Columbans Mission SocietyFr Rufus Halley in Mindanao, Philippines. - Photo: St Columbans Mission Society

Several Columban missionaries have suffered as Jesus suffered. Like Jesus of Nazareth, they have been reviled, betrayed, falsely charged by evildoers, and imprisoned. Many stayed with the people through war and pestilence and gave hope and help. In 72 years of missionary work, 24 missionaries have died violent deaths in serving the people of the Philippines. Fr Rufus was one of those who gave his life for his friends.

Missionaries of all nationalities, men and women, have given their lives not only for a daily commitment to the poor but also for their unshakable belief that love of neighbour, goodness and truth will overcome evil.

Fr Rufus Halley lived out that commitment. His spirit and memory live on, inspiring, encouraging and empowering the people among whom he lived and served. His spirit lives on with his Columban brothers and sisters.

He was a man with a mission to be one in friendship with people of all faiths. A bridge builder and a peacemaker, he negotiated a peace deal that healed years of gunfights and killings between two families. He brought them peace.

He was also the director and a teacher in his school, Our Lady of Peace, in Malabang, Marawi. Fr Rufus brought the students together with a shared life experience of education, where understanding and mutual respect were the values that would unite Muslim and Christian communities. He was well loved by Muslims and Christians alike. They respected and admired him, trusted him.

He was a friend to everyone, hurt no one, loved all and never said no when asked for help. He spoke their languages fluently and blended with their customs and culture.

At one time in 1989, Fr Rufus surprised everyone when he went to work as a salesman in a Muslim store. He was learning the local language and the customs. But more than that, he was being a humble friend to the Muslim community. Fr Rufus was one of them and was a positive influence in promoting interreligious dialogue, peace-making and uniting the communities.

Fr Rufus stood against the violence and aggression directed at the Muslim Maranao people and Christian villages that the military believed were harbouring rebels.

He fought for the rights of the Muslims who were oppressed and targeted by the Philippine military. He would not bless their weapons or celebrate Mass for the local commander, which would have been a mockery given they were shelling Muslim villages.

His school became a refuge for Muslims during military operations. This would have made him a suspect in the eyes of the military and a prime target.

Then one day, on 28 August 2001, he was riding his motorcycle to officiate at the wedding of a poor young couple in a village when he was accosted by a band of heavily armed men. They wanted to take him away, but he tried to escape and was shot dead at point-blank range, according to a witness.

A man of peace and reconciliation had become a victim of a terrible violent crime. The gun violence he had stood against came to silence him. He died for his beliefs, his values, and his solidarity with the oppressed.

Who were these men? It was difficult to prove amid the fighting between Philippine military forces and rebel Muslim groups. The military and political authorities said the men were kidnappers who posed a regular threat in that area at that time.

We may never know who killed Fr Rufus. But he died for what he believed and stood for - his love of goodness and truth, his stand against wrongdoing and violence, his life of virtue, goodness and service to the poor, and the spiritual values he lived and shared.

Columban Fr Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.

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