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Philippines: WCC general secretary praises inter-church cooperation
Rising militarism, the extent of inter-church cooperation, and ongoing attempts to redefine the meaning of being church made a strong impression on Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser on his first official visit to the Philippines as general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
During his visit 11-17 March, Raiser met with leaders of WCC member churches, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), public officials, and women and peace groups in Manila. He also visited a Muslim community and leaders of a Muslim separatist movement in southern Philippines.
Commenting on rising social tensions, Raiser said, "I am troubled by the political situation. No one knows how to avoid a progressive deterioration. There is no will to defend the existing order, nor a common approach to change." He cautioned against "disconcerting" government intentions to re-establish vigilante groups and the recruitment of pastors into these groups or to spy within churches.
Raiser said there had been ample opportunity for very frank talk with the public officials he met. "I found there was no hesitation to admit that things are bad and could get worse." A wide range of issues, including militarization and the death penalty, were taken up in meetings with Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Sandiganbayan Justice Raoul Victorino, and former senator Jovito Salonga. Raiser also met with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin.
He said he perceived no easing in the military build-up on either side in the southern island of Mindanao, where military troops are fighting the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). He expressed the hope that both sides take the negotiation process seriously and scale down military presence. Raiser cited the experiences of Central and Latin America and the Philippines in the recent past, and noted "a trend towards resolving conflict through military means. The government should believe that this response does not solve problems."
NCCP general secretary Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes said that Raiser's visit had come at a significant moment: "It is important for an ecumenical world leader who shares the perceptions of the churches to come and express his support for churches in these trying times."
"Again the churches are being called to act as during the Marcos years," Ruiz-Duremdes suggested. Since 1986, and under the administrations of Corazon Aquino, a popularly elected president, and the country's first Protestant president, Fidel Ramos, Protestant churches had held back criticism. "Now the churches must take the government to task, especially now that President Joseph Estrada has told churches not to meddle in social and political issues."
Interested in the churches' contribution to sustainable development based on social justice, Raiser said he was impressed by "the unique extent and the great treasure" of inter-church cooperation, activities and organizations in the Philippines. This commitment corresponds to a high degree of organization among grassroots groups, manifesting their self-consciousness and self-identification as a people, he noted.
Another encouraging development is a renewed interest in forging inter-church links. Covenants between the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) and the UCCP, concordats between the IFI and the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP) and between the UCCP and Unida Ecumenical are examples of this. Raiser expressed hope that such initiatives would spread to other churches.
In his address to a church forum, Raiser sounded a word of caution about current World Bank attempts to involve churches in implementation of their policies. He said, "As an ecumenical community, we must constantly monitor strategies being proposed by the World Bank to ensure that we are not unwittingly coopted into the agenda of the World Bank. We must never go along with policies and plans which contribute to the disintegration of communities and creation."
At meetings with the heads of churches, Raiser emphasized the importance of local congregations being at the frontline. "As the smallest units of the church, they are part of the people's lives. They are privileged with the knowledge of where the people are afraid, and what the churches should confront." During his visit he had seen many examples of church leaders, lay workers and grassroots leaders who exemplified the true manner of the presence of Christ, he said.
The NCCP's Ruiz-Duremdes was buoyed up by Raiser's support for the churches' peace ministry and its role in peace negotiations and consultations. "After having been here, I hope he may be our advocate in the WCC and the appropriate world forums to make people see what is happening in our country."
Besides Manila, Raiser visited Midsayap Town and Cotabato City in Mindanao, where he spoke with the Ghazali Jaffar, vice chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) - the most serious contender among the Muslim groups for power in the south.
Raiser also spoke at three public gatherings. The first was a Sunday worship service, where he delivered a sermon on the continuing need for churches to be in solidarity with women. The second was a forum with church leaders and seminary students, where Raiser spoke on the ecumenical challenges posed by "Jubilee". The third was a festival of women.
Towards the end of his visit, Raiser met with 17 protesters who had been detained by the police, among them the UCCP treasurer Rev. Rey Geloagan and Joe Dizon, a Roman Catholic priest.
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.