PRESS RELEASE: Detained Church workers ask Pope Francis’s help to find justice

Political prisoner and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines lay worker Joel Q. Yagao in his letter to Pope Francis said, “We, who have been charged with crimes that we did not commit, beg and plead you, our Beloved Holy Pope to help us find justice. We long to be with our families, and work once more with the people.”

The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines is a mission partner of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines. Yagao was arrested at the compound of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental on September 8, 2013 by joint elements of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG). He is now detained at the Gingoog City Jail in Misamis Oriental.

“In my imprisonment, I am not able to carry out my tasks in serving the farmers, farm workers, fisher folks, indigenous communities, and other sectors. I am not able to be with my family and I could not help my wife in providing for our family’s daily needs. Inside this jail, I am beset with worries, longing for my family, physical pains, and stress from the long-drawn processes of case hearings,” said Yagao.

Prior to his arrest, Yagaohas worked in Northern Mindanao as RMP lay worker for five years, during which he has been responsible for agrarian campaigns held in partnership with local indigenous, community-based and farmers’ associations such as the Balingasag Farmers’ Association. These campaigns have been successful in securing a number of improvements to local communities’ livelihoods, including increased wages for seasonal workers and the elimination of usury. He has also coordinated trainings on sustainable agriculture and cooperative management. Prior to his arrest, he was helping in the preparation for the protest actions for the October Peasant Month campaigns.

Yagao was charged with double murder and multiple frustrated murder on the basis of the military’s claim that he was among those who fired at the vehicle of former Gingoog Mayor Ruthie Guingona.

The RMP believes that Yagao’sarrest is part of the continued harassment and intimidation of state security forces against members of RMP-NMR and progressive institutions and organizations. “Our office and staff have been put under intensified surveillance this year, causing dislocations in our work for human rights in the company of poor farmers and indigenous peoples,” stated the RMP.

A month after Yagao was arrested, another lay worker of the RMP was arrested on October 16 in Tagum City. Dominiciano Muya was an agriculturist of the RMP in Northern Mindanao. Being a Lumad himself, he was employed “to ensure food, environmental and livelihood sustainability for indigenous communities” where there are RMP schools. He is also consultant of the Salugpungan Ta TanuIgkanugon Learning Center (STTILC), a community-based school for Lumad children, established by the RMP.

But, the AFP claimed Muyawas a former staff of the CPP/NPA Northern Mindanao region with a reward money of P4.8million. He is currently detained at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon on charges of multiple murder, double frustrated murder, robbery with double homicide and damage to properties, and illegal possession of firearms.

In his letter to the Pope, Muya’s co-worker Joel Yagao continued, “As Rural Missionaries, we live and work with farmers, farm workers, fisher folks, and indigenous communities … In carrying out our work in these issues, we are subjected to harassment, threats, accused of being members of the New People’s Army by the government and its law enforcers.”

“Beloved Pope, your visit here in the Philippines this January 2015 is part of your love for the Filipino people. As the highest head of the Roman Catholic Church, we hope that we will be included in your prayers and help for the millions of Filipinos suffering extreme poverty, their rights violated, victimized by injustice. We hope you will be with us in our wish for freedom,” Yagao ended.