By Rina Chandran
KORONADAL, Philippines, April 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For some years now, people in bright pink vests have become as familiar a sight in parts of Mindanao in the southern Philippines as gun-toting soldiers, a ray of hope for the indigenous peoples who have been forced off their lands by armed conflict.
The pink vests are a mark of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), or the Philippine Independent Church, where members of the clergy and lay volunteers trained in conflict resolution help protect vulnerable communities.
The teams live in communities of Lumads - which refers to indigenous peoples in Mindanao - accompanying them on their daily tasks, and recording and reporting any rights abuses.
"The struggle of the Lumad has truly become our struggle. Their aspirations are our aspiration," said Father Christopher Ablon of the Lumad Accompaniment Program, which was launched in 2015 following a spike in violence against them.
"Sometimes all they need from the Church to feel safer is our mere presence. In accompaniment, our presence is felt by the community under threat, the perpetrators who threaten them and the government that is supposed to protect them," he said.
In the Philippines, the only Christian-majority nation in Asia, members of the Church have long been involved in politics, and in the struggles of women, farmers and indigenous people.
More recently, they have clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte, opposing his war on drugs that has led to thousands of killings, and a crackdown on rural communities that activists say is forcing thousands off their lands.
Ablon said he was inspired by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, where he was among the first Filipino priests in 2011, spending three months in Palestine.
The Lumad programme aims to draw attention to the plight of the communities, document and report rights abuses, and help them keep their ancestral lands from being taken for mining and industry, through lobbying and legal efforts, Ablon said.
The IFI has also been involved in peace talks between communist rebels and the government, and their presence is particularly critical after Mindanao was placed under martial law last year, he said.
"My faith inspires me to serve the poor and marginalised. It also gives me leeway to utilise resources and influences in serving farmers and indigenous peoples," he said.
Churches in the Philippines have long had an active role in politics, including the "People Power" revolution that drove dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile more than 30 years ago. Church members have even contested elections.
More than 80 percent of the Philippines' population is Catholic, and unlike many other countries where faith has waned, the majority still practise with enthusiasm.
Their popular support has given the Church enormous political and social clout.
"The Catholic Church has been politically influential since the Spanish times," said Ramon Casiple at the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform think tank in Manila.
"Their influence has lessened considerably, but they are still able to shape public opinion, and the bishops still have the ear of the government, even if their recommendations do not always result in policy action," he said.
On land rights, which are more of a concern for rural people, the Church still wields influence, he said.
It is not the only religious institution in the region to do so: Buddhist monks in Cambodia have also thrown themselves into the fight over land and resources, risking imprisonment and banishment from their order.
In the Philippines, the Catholic Bishops Conference (CBC) has organised peasant farmers, helped them apply for land allotments under the government's agrarian reform programme, and ensures they receive the lands and are able to settle there.
It also lobbies against the mining and logging industries, and supports environmental groups in efforts to combat climate-change threats and promote sustainable agriculture, said Father Edwin Gariguez, an executive secretary of CBC.
"Our engagements with farmers and indigenous peoples are based on the Catholic principles of human dignity, common good, and care for the Earth," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It is about their rights and also improving livelihoods and the food security of communities," he said.
Their actions are not without risks.
According to advocacy group Promotion of Church People's Response, more than 31 church workers have been killed in the Philippines since 2000. Many more have been arrested on various charges.
The department of justice did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the arrests and killings.
Last week, Sister Patricia Fox, a 71-year-old Australian nun, was taken from her home and detained at the immigration bureau in Manila for almost a day. She was released pending further investigation.
Duterte said he had ordered the investigation for "disorderly conduct", and accused Fox of badmouthing his administration.
Fox, who has worked in the Philippines for 27 years, said her humanitarian work in Mindanao was consistent with the teachings of the Church, and denied engaging in politicking.
Earlier this week, she was ordered to leave the country within 30 days for her involvement in political activities.
For Arlon Beato, a lay minister in Koronadal city in Mindanao, the threat of arrest is a daily reality as he helps indigenous people in his parish of about 100,000 hold on to their ancestral lands.
Beato's task is made more challenging after Duterte said he would open up resource-rich indigenous lands in Mindanao to investors, to generate wealth for its people.
"The lands belong to these people, and they cannot be given over to industry. Yes, these are poor people who need jobs and incomes, but mining and logging are not sustainable," he said.
"As Christians we have a duty to protect the forests, the mountains, the rivers that sustain the people," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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