‘The grip is getting tighter’
For the arrest and detention early this week of Australian missionary Sister Patricia Fox, President Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque offered some sort of appeasement. He said apologies were perhaps “in order” because the nun was released quickly by the Bureau of Immigration, which could also commit a mistake. As he put it: “Siguro apologies are in order kasi madalian naman siyang pinalabas din ng BI. Siguro nagkakamali rin naman ang BI.”
Roque was trying to fudge the facts. Fox was not immediately released by immigration officials. After her surprise arrest on Monday at her home in Quezon City for allegedly engaging in political activities against the government, she was taken to the BI head office in Intramuros, Manila, and detained for at least 22 hours. She was released only on Tuesday after the bureau established that her papers were in order—she is, in fact, a properly documented foreigner with a valid missionary visa, as she has maintained all along.
Fox is 71 years old, and has lived in the Philippines for 27 years. A member of the Notre Dame de Sion congregation, she has devoted her life to ministering to the poorest, most marginalized Filipinos, and has been in and out of the country without incident—until now. “How many Filipinos have spent that many years of their lives, as Sister Pat has, working with the last, the least and the lost of this woebegone country?” wrote Inquirer columnist Ma. Ceres Doyo. But, “for heeding the biblical imperative to walk with those who have been largely forgotten, she is suspected to be an enemy of the state.”
What could have gotten Fox into such a tangle with the government that all of a sudden she is now a person of interest facing deportation for being an “undesirable alien”? Apparently, she has been spotted joining rallies protesting human rights abuses against political prisoners and farmers, and speaking up on their behalf. The fact that her activities caught the eye of the authorities is perhaps not surprising in itself; what is surprising is how high up the case of this hitherto obscure missionary reached—all the way to the presidential sanctum in Malacañang. For Mr. Duterte would eventually reveal that it was he who had ordered the arrest and investigation of Fox, supposedly for “disorderly conduct” in joining political demonstrations and daring to criticize his administration. The nun had a foul mouth, according to the President. The statement in the vernacular is profoundly more startling: “Walang hiya ang bunganga ng madre na yan.”
The arrest and detention of Fox appear to be of a piece with the intensifying crackdown on critics of the administration, but, in this case, it has united members of the Catholic Church and other religious denominations in protesting Malacañang’s heavy hand. The Ecumenical Bishops Forum denounced the “absurd action” against the missionary, and highlighted the disturbing trend of church workers coming under “systematic state-sponsored attack,” such as Catholic priest Marcelito Paez getting killed after facilitating the release of a political prisoner, and Iglesia Filipina Independiente bishop and peace advocate Carlo Morales being arrested and detained for nearly a year.
Meanwhile, in a Facebook post, Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo not only detailed Fox’s ordeal at the Bureau of Immigration (she suffers from “several ailments, what with her thin and frail stature,” he said) but also issued a grim warning: “The grip is getting tighter; getting hard on people who manifest dissent against the abuses of the government… The victim can even be a woman, an elderly, and a religious. Before, they were the poor, the young, and the gullible. Let us be wary. This government cannot take dissent. It uses the machineries of the state—and even the law—to bring down people, whoever and whatever their condition may be.”
Notwithstanding Roque’s attempt at an “apology,” Fox’s arrest was no mistake; it was meant, unmistakably, to be a warning.
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