Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Military threaten Filipino nuns

Filipino nuns. (CathNews)

DAVAO CITY, Philippines (CathNews / Feb. 24, 2009) - A Filipino Benedictine nun has accused government soldiers of harassing herself and other environmental activists after they held a forum on mining and sustainable agriculture in a southern Mindanao village, according to a report by the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN).

UCAN reported that Sr Stella Matutina said armed soldiers wearing camouflaged uniforms harassed her and two environmentalists after they organised a village forum on mining related issues.

"Armed men barged in and roused all of us at gunpoint," Sister Stella Matutina, 40, said in a recent press conference in the southern Davao City. "They demanded to see the documents and materials used during the forum."

The group, invited by local officials, had finished an "anti-mining forum" and talk on sustainable agriculture in Taytayan village on February 15. They were sleeping in a village hall when the incident allegedly took place.

The Sisters' Association in Mindanao condemned the incident. "The Armed Forces of the Philippines is sending out the chilling message that no religious can disrupt their plans of protecting the interests of logging, mining and big businesses," read their statement presented at the press conference.

Sr Matutina, together with Panalipdan, a broad alliance of environmentalists and peoples' organizations, has helped in documenting mining activities in Mindanao's Davao Oriental province, including those of the world's largest mining company BHP Billiton.

Panalipdan's Davao Oriental chairman Wenceslao Mapa and Councilor Maria Fe Matibo from the provincial capital of Mati joined Sister Matutina to conduct the forum.

However, masked gunmen wearing camouflaged military uniforms woke them up before 4 a.m. the next day.

Sr Matutina said the men introduced themselves as soldiers and told her she was not supposed to be there. The nun and the environmentalists were held for hours, until Mati diocese sent Father Edmundo Escobal to negotiate for their release.

Major Randolph Cabangbang, regional military spokesperson contacted by telephone, denied any harassment had taken place and described the incident as propaganda by groups linked to Maoist rebels.

He said soldiers went to the area "to check reports of suspicious looking and armed men."
"Our soldiers did not know the nun was there," he said. "What was she doing there? She was supposed to stay in the convent. What she did there wasn't related to her Church work."

At the news conference, Mapa told reporters the gunmen had pointed two rifles at him and he felt "traumatized." Matibo said she felt embarrassed about the way the nun and Mapa were treated.

Sister Matutina said the incident infuriated her, but she was most concerned about how soldiers would treat "ordinary people who cannot defend their rights."

Panalipdan reported it documented more than 100 applications for mining exploration permits submitted to the provincial government as of December 2008.

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