By Robin Gomes
Three Catholic Bishops of the Philippines have made themselves available and accepted the challenge of contributing to peace talks with the rebels of the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
The Vatican’s Fides news agency has been informed that the three bishops are from the island of Samar in the central Philippines. They are Bishops Crispin Varques of Borongan, Emmanuel Trance of Catarman and Isabelo Abarquez of Calbayog.
They will lead a team that will start new talks with the New People's Army (NPA) rebels, who have expressed their desire to come out of hiding.
Trust in Church mediation
CPP founder, Jose Maria Sison, said on February 29 that the group was still open for peace talks but not with government officials. He said he would rather negotiate with clergymen than politicians.
Local Fides sources say that the participation of the bishops in the peace talks is proof that the goal of ending the protracted armed struggle requires a national approach.
Bishop Varquez expressed hope that the peace talks would lead to an end to the insurgency, which has affected Samar's economy and development. “We are more than willing to cooperate and do the work for peace and progress of the island,” the Philippine News Agency reported the bishop as saying.
The commitment of the bishops “sends a sign of optimism and hope to the government and the NPA,” said Major Pio Diñoso, commander of the Philippine Army's eighth infantry division. “Church leaders are considered neutral people. They are wise and intelligent enough to understand whether the guerrillas are sincere; they also have knowledge of social issues and have spiritual maturity”, Diñoso said.
On February 20, leaders of the government, the Church and civil society approved a resolution designating three Catholic bishops to conduct informal contacts with members of the communist group operating in the region, in order to re-establish communications and then call for new peace talks.
Peace and development movement
Some areas of the island are considered NPA strongholds due to poor road networks, dense forests, high incidence of poverty and low level of education in mountain communities.
The decision to appoint 3 bishops as mediators was taken during the 43rd assembly of the "Samar Island Partnership for Peace and Development" (SIPPAD), an organization composed of representatives from the government, Church and civil society groups from the three provinces of the island of Samar.
SIPPAD is one of the 12 groups of the "National Task Force" established to end the armed conflict with the communist rebels. Created in January 2006, SIPPAD meets every three months and includes the Catholic bishops of the island of Samar together with the governors of the provinces of the island.
The NPA, which led a five-year armed struggle against the government, is defined regarded as a "terrorist organization" by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Philippines. For two and a half years, President Rodrigo Duterte's government blocked dialogue with the NPA.
The CPP was formed in 1968 and the NPA a year later. The communist army blames the government for the exploitation of the land and labour, violation of human rights, political marginalization and discrimination against the indigenous people. According to the NGOs, the NPA is believed to have approximately 3,700 members, spread mainly in the Visayas islands, in the central Philippines. (Source: Fides)