Sr Patricia is an Australian nun and human rights campaigner for the Philippines. She worked as a missionary in the Philippines for 27 years, until she was deported in 2018 over her outspoken criticism of human rights violations in the country. Sr Patricia reflects on her time in the Philippines…
This month marks 30 years of the Sister of Our Lady of Sion in the Philippines. While on the one hand it is a matter to celebrate, on the other hand, personally it is a sad time for me. I was one of the two sisters who went to the Philippines in 1990 to begin a community there in response to a call of the Congregation. At our 1986 General Chapter we were called to “see the world through the eyes of the poor”. Realising we were not in Asia where the majority of both the world’s population and the poor are, we decided to send sisters to Asia to learn from them.
I had been in a Philippine Solidarity Group here in Australia for some time after returning home from 3 years in Israel in 1980. It was a time when I was struggling to understand Liberation Theology. While in Israel, I met a Filipina sister who wanted to be with her people on the streets as they protested the atrocities of the Marcos regime. This spoke to me as I felt she had imbibed this theology. I had the privilege of going to the Philippines in 1984 as part of an exposure group and fell in love with the country and the people. So it wasn’t difficult for me to volunteer when our congregation decided to open a community there.
However, that was not to say it was not a challenge getting used to the culture and the climate! I learnt so much from the people in terms of relationships, patience and courage. Coming from urban Melbourne, I was immersed in the lives of rural poor farmers and indigenous peoples. I got to know these people as my friends and was drawn to stand by them in their struggles for land, justice and freedom. Many I knew were killed and imprisoned. It was through them I could understand what Pope Francis meant when he wrote in his encyclical Laudato Si quoting Dominican bishops: “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism” (#92).
It was this solidarity with the struggling rural poor that led me to join several fact-finding missions. I did not know that the one I joined in April of 2018 was to be my last. At that time the Duterte Government had declared martial law in Mindanao, supposedly in response to the ISIS attack on Marawi in Mindanao. However, according to my Muslim friends there, this was never about ISIS, but to do with the indigenous people and their ancestral lands where the Government wanted to expand a military base as well as mining and plantations. Unfortunately, Australia helped in bombing this area where over 1,000 civilians lost their lives. And while the Philippine Government was proclaiming the benefits of martial law, we in Manila were hearing tales of atrocities. I was meeting young people tortured, whose parents had been killed or arrested; Lumad children whose schools that we had helped set up being targeted by the military and teachers harassed and killed.
In response to the request from the oppressed groups in Mindanao, a multi-sectoral delegation from church, academia, peasant and indigenous groups, went to targeted parts of Mindanao to document abuses, bring them to public attention and call for justice and the lifting of martial law. It was just one week after coming back that six Bureau of Immigration agents arrived on my doorstep with a warrant for my arrest and deportation. This began a saga of the Government trying to get rid of me by any means, and an amazing group of human rights lawyers doing a crash course in migration law, thwarting their efforts. Plus, every time I had to appear at Immigration or Department of Justice, a host of farmers, indigenous people, urban poor and church people would be there in support. Where the fact finding had received no publicity to this time, the findings were becoming public through the interest in what was happening to me.
The arguments against me originally revolved around the claim by the Bureau of Immigration that missionary work meant teaching religion and converting people, and not being with the poor and speaking out about human rights violations. This led to amazing discussions with our ecumenical community about what it is to be a missionary in a repressive society and that it was for the Church and not the Government to determine the role. The case eventually extended into the right to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of religion. Eventually the Government gave up on legal arguments and issued an order that I had to be out in three days because that was what the President wanted. And although this could technically be challenged, the order was issued when there were holidays and no office to appeal, so the lawyers advised me to leave before I was arrested again and forcibly deported.
To this day, I remain ever grateful to those who supported me in the 28 years I was in the Philippines and particularly in the six months I fought to stay. I promised them I would keep working for justice, peace and freedom there and have continued my solidarity work. A forum coming up on 16 September includes three speakers who have been long-time friends and colleagues. Bishop Pabillo tried to have me released into his custody when I was first released and Sr Mary John’s reaction was “why you, you are so quiet – it must be the Holy Spirit”. Guess God really does work in strange ways which sometimes are not to our choosing!
By Sr Patricia Fox
September is Solidarity Month for the Defence of Human Rights in the Philippines. The Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) Australian Chapter and the Filipino Conference (FNC) in the Uniting Church in Australia has organised an Online Forum on Wednesday, 16 September 2020 at 7.00 pm AEST entitled: Church People’s Prophetic Voices against State Terrorism in the Philippines. This aims to highlight the response of our Christian sisters and brothers in the Philippines to the escalating attacks on human rights defenders and activists.