Communications Secretary Martin Andanar on Sunday dismissed allegations that President Rodrigo Duterte’s staff ordered priests and bishops to leave the Balangiga town plaza during the ceremonial turnover of historic church bells in Eastern Samar.
“I didn’t see it. The only thing I noticed was the entrance of the President in the gymnasium. He greeted his Cabinet and officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Andanar told radio dzBB.
“Then, he greeted the priests and Archbishop Romulo Valles, he’s from Davao, right? He also greeted the Papal Nuncio and the other reverend representing the United States military,” he said.
Andanar said the crowd even cheered as Duterte met Valles, the Papal Nuncio, and the Archbishop of the Military Ordinariate of the United States.
Andanar issued the statement after a Facebook post was publicized on Saturday afternoon by the Diocese of Borongan, Bishop Crispin Varquez of Borongan, saying the Archbishop of the Military Ordinariate of the United States and the Apostolic Nuncio were “told to go out” of Balangiga plaza.
The post also said that the President only wanted Valles, a friend, to be in the area. Some priests, however, were even supposedly asked to take off their Roman collars so as not to offend Duterte, who has criticized
Catholic priests in his previous speeches.
Seats were also placed in front of the priests’ place “to cover them,” the post added.
Fr. Edmel Raagas, one of the priests who attended the historic turnover of all three church bells, supported the allegation.
“Priests, including the Borongan bishop and the Apostolic Nuncio, were initially told to go out of the Balangiga plaza, minutes before the President arrived,” he told one online news service.
Raagas said it was the Presidential Management Staff that told them to go out and transfer to other seats out of Duterte’s vision.
Andanar quickly denied the allegation, calling it untrue. The President even recognized the priests and other clergymen in his speech, he said.
“I don’t know why there are stories like that,” he said.
During the ceremony on Saturday, Duterte witnessed US Deputy Chief of Mission John C. Law hand over the bells’ transfer certificate to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. The certificate was then handed to Balangiga Mayor Randy Graza.
In his speech, Duterte said that the return of the bells was possible because of the “several efforts made by both Americans and the Philippines.” He said no particular statesman can solely take credit for the successful return of the bells.
“Let me be very clear on this: There are some who are front loaders and pedantic in the government. The bells are returned and it was really because of the fervent prayers of the entire Filipino nation,” Duterte said.
“But nobody can claim a singular credit for the generous act of the Americans. The bells are returned. The credit goes to the American people and to the Filipino people. Period,” the President added.
The bells were seized as war trophies by American troops during the Philippine-American War 117 years ago. During the ceremony, the President kissed the bells and rang them seven times.
The Catholic Church has been at the center of the President’s tirades over its vocal stand against Duterte’s controversial drug war that killed thousands of drug suspects and addicts.
Yet during the handover ceremony, the President was seen shaking hands with the bishop, the apostolic nuncio and other church delegates before he took to the stage for the ceremony.
The President, however, skipped the Catholic Mass after the ceremonial turnover.
The President arrived at 5 pm Saturday at the town’s covered court where hundreds of government officials, Catholic priests, and residents gathered to witness the historic event.
After greeting Cabinet officials at the left side of the covered hall, Duterte proceeded to the other side to shake hands with top church officials led by Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
The President’s friendly gesture to the CBCP leader elicited applause from the crowd as people watched the event on a big screen set up by the Presidential Broadcast Staff Radio-Television Malacañang.
The President also shook the hands of Borongan, Eastern Samar Diocese Bishop Crispin Varquez, Papal Nuncio to the Philippines Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, Archbishop of the US Military Ordinariate Timothy Broglio and other church officials seated in front facing the stage.
“The rest of the Filipino nation joins the Diocese of Borongan in celebrating this historic event. Indeed, this victory is the result of the optimism and solidarity and patriotism of those behind the bells’ return, just like when our forefathers fought for freedom against foreign domination more than a century ago,” Duterte told the crowd.
US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission John Law and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Felter represented the US government at the return ceremony of the Balangiga Bells in this town. With AFP