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Philippine judicial leader speaks out against killings

Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno welcomes retired United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison.
Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno welcomes retired United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison to a luncheon in Manila held last August for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society's Social Creed Task Force.
UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.

Second in a series

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Nov. 19, 2007 | MANILA, Philippines (UMNS)

Faith with JusticePhilippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno is a United Methodist who has become a powerful voice in the fight to stop extrajudicial killings and abductions that have haunted his country since 2001.

"I like to believe that of all the Christian denominations, The United Methodist Church has the best social action ideas," said Puno. "I like to think that the better part of me is the Methodist part."

Recently, Puno held a summit in Manila on the extrajudicial killings, putting a spotlight on the nation's human rights crisis. The summit included representatives from the judicial, executive and legislative branches of government, as well as scholars, members of the legal profession, the militant left, religious leaders and media.

Puno said one of the most compelling reasons to hold the summit was "to prevent us (from) losing eye contact with these killings and disappearances, revive our righteous indignation and spur our united search for the elusive solution to this pestering problem."

Human rights groups have documented more than 800 extrajudicial killings in the Philippines since 2001 when President Gloria Arroyo took office. They say Arroyo's military have targeted political activists, including clergy.

Bold step

On Sept. 25, the Supreme Court in Manila approved a Puno-supported court rule on the writ of amparo, under which the military or police cannot simply deny involvement in abductions or extrajudicial killings. Rather, they also must prove they are not involved and, under court order, open their detention facilities for inspection.

In an interview with United Methodist News Service, Puno explained why he is using his power to enact the writ of amparo and why he has taken the bold step to put the Arroyo government, police and military on guard.

A court rule broader than the writ of habeas corpus was needed, he said.

"You begin with the writ of habeas corpus," he said. "It is a remedy where a person who has been detained illegally by the public authorities can be asked to produce the body of the victim. But when the public authorities, especially the police or the military, make their return to the writ in their answer, they just say the body is not with us. And that is it. That’s the end of the remedy."

Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno
"I like to think that the better part of me is the Methodist part," says Puno, who was raised a United Methodist.

The writ of amparo goes deeper. "It imposes greater obligations on the part of the public authorities as well as persons who may have a caused the disappearance, or the extrajudicial killings," he said.

"Today, the Supreme Court promulgated the rule that will place the constitutional right to life, liberty and security above violation and threats of violation. This rule will provide the victims of extralegal killings and enforced disappearances the protection they need and the promise of vindication for their rights," Puno said in a Sept. 25 statement. The writ took effect Oct. 24.

Churches must help

Puno believes people have been "anaesthetized" over the escalation of killings and disappearances. Many are afraid of becoming targets themselves if they report the killings.

He knows he is putting his own life in danger by speaking publicly about such injustices, and he appreciates the three United Methodist bishops in the Philippines who also have been outspoken about the killings.

"The church has a great role in the Philippines," he said, noting that churches helped to bring down the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Puno hosted a luncheon in August for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society's Social Creed Task Force and other religious leaders and discussed his vision for the country's future.

"Let me counsel that in Third World countries where people experience unending exploitation, where years of dehumanization have brutalized people as worse than useless, there is a worrisome weariness on the credibility gap between our words and our works; more accurately, between the Lord’s word and our work," he said.

The United Methodist task force was in the Philippines to present a proposed denominational Social Creed to Filipino church leaders for feedback and input. Other religious leaders invited included United Methodist Bishops Solito K. Toquero, Benjamin A. Justo, Leo A. Soriano, Jose C. Gamboa Jr., Emerito P. Nacpil and Daniel C. Arichea Jr.; Rev. Ignacio Soliba, chairman of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and prime bishop of the Episcopal Church; Bishop Deogracias Iniguez, Ecumenical Bishops Forum; Bishop Nathaneal Lazaro, IEMELIF Church; Rev. Manuel Rapisura, Philippine Central Conference.

In response to Puno's address, United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison, former chair of the task force, called the meeting "a gift beyond measure."

"I've had the opportunity to preach to two presidents and one king, but this is first opportunity I've had a chief justice preach to me," she said. "And may I add an incredibly prophetic and challenging sermon!

Paraphrasing Scripture, Morrison told the chief justice: "Your Christian brothers and sisters in the faith community rise up and call you blessed, and know we will be continually praying for you and your faithful witness and ministry and for this great country of the Philippines."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. This report developed out of her trip to the Philippines in August.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org .

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