From jail cell to justice advocate

berlin

DEB BENNETT

Now that he happily serves as a Uniting Church minister in the Victorian border town of Wodonga, Rev Berlin Guerrero could be forgiven for turning his back on the country where he was jailed and tortured for 15 months.

However, the plight of those living in his homeland of the Philippines the country he was forced to flee, is never far from Berlin’s thoughts.

“I am always in contact with ministers and church officials, and people’s organisations in the Philippines,” he said.

“I receive regular updates on the economic and political situation, especially on human rights, the socio-economic condition of the people and their actions to defend their rights and advance their political struggle to achieve genuine freedom and democracy.”

As one of the provisional workshop leaders at this year’s Justice and International Mission conference, Berlin knows first-hand how difficult it can be to stand up for issues you believe in.

From his early student days, Berlin – who was a pastor with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines – worked with those seeking to end oppression and give a voice to the voiceless.

On 27 May 2007, Berlin attended the memorial service for a friend assassinated a year earlier. As he and his family were leaving the church, a white van with the number plates removed pulled up in front of their motorised tricycle.

Armed men placed a bag over Berlin’s head and abducted him. The men also robbed his wife Mylene, taking her bag, mobile phone, laptop and the money collected in the church service.

Berlin was taken to an unknown location and tortured. His captors forced him to give them his computer password. They wiped off all his church, school and personal files and replaced them with incriminating files.

At first, authorities denied Berlin had been abducted. He was then taken to Camp platoon Garcia, Cavite Provincial Police Office and placed under arrest, with charges of murder and sedition.

For the next 15 months, Berlin was held on these trumped up charges. Members of the Uniting Church were among many human rights activists who campaigned for his release.

Although the charges were eventually dropped, Berlin and his family knew he was not safe. He was offered sanctuary in Australia, where he worked with the synod’s JIM unit while studying for ordination as a Uniting Church minister.

Unfortunately the Philippines is still fraught with political corruption and repression of those who challenge the ruling elite. Extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture are common.

According to Asia Human Rights Watch, these activities “specifically target left-leaning political activists, human rights defenders (and) members of the clergy”.

Since Rodrigo Duterte’s election in 2016 it is estimated that as many as 12,000 people have been killed in the president’s “war on drugs”.

Duterte campaigned on a law and order platform, promising to “kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable” in order to “solve drugs, criminality, and corruption in three to six months”.

“The Duterte regime has become a new dictatorship comparable to Marcos,” Berlin said.

“His campaign against illegal drugs has resulted in thousands of killings, mostly of ordinary urban poor dwellers.

“The political persecution of human rights activists and defenders continues. Executions of leaders of peoples’ organisations and the militarisation of indigenous peoples’ villages has intensified.

“The recent International People’s Tribunal held in Belgium found the Duterte US-backed regime guilty of attacks on people’s rights and sovereignty.”

Duterte has also increased surveillance on human rights activists within the Philippines, with hundreds of lawyers, NGO workers and activists accused of being members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.

The CPP and NPA are considered terrorist organisations in the Philippines.

Berlin and his family continue to campaign for the rights of the marginalised. He hopes the UCA will continue to follow the lead of the synod’s social justice campaigner Jill Ruzbacky, who sadly passed away earlier this year.

“The best way for us as a church is to develop a church-to-church partnership that supports and helps develop a people-to-people solidarity,” Berlin said.

“A good example is the mission and ministry of Sister Particia Fox, that has found its place and relevance in the people’s suffering and struggles in the Philippines.

“This is the same spirit which filled Jill Ruzbacky’s heart and endeared her to the Filipino church and the people the church seeks to serve.

“We have a suffering yet struggling neighbour in the Filipino people. Let us find ways we can express our love, which is Christ’s love, to them.”

The JIM Conference will be held on Saturday 27 October at the Centre of Theology and Ministry, Parkville. Berlin Guerrero’s workshop will go ahead if there are sufficient participants.

For more information contact Ann Byrne on (03) 9340 8815 or email: ann.byrne@victas.uca.org.au. To register online please go to: https://ucavt.goregister.com.au/

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