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Filipino church demolished to make way for government project

By Matthew Davies

St. Peter's Church in Sabangan, Mountain Province, before its demolition.  

[Episcopal News Service]  The Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP) has announced that one of its churches -- St. Peter's in Sabangan, Mountain Province -- has been demolished in order to enable a government-coordinated project of constructing an open-air gymnasium, despite a civil court case declaring the Diocese of Northern Philippines as the rightful owner of the property.

"The forcible destruction happened even after we won a forcible entry case," said Floyd Lawlet, an ECP spokesperson, who asked for prayers and solidarity.

According to ECP's website, the court had denied a motion July 21 "to restrain the contractors from preventing or disturbing the congregation in their worship ... at the open-air gymnasium," where services had been held since the church's demolition. The reason reportedly given for the denial was that "the services would prevent the execution of a government project."

The congregation hiked to the municipal hall July 23 to hold Sunday mass at the invitation of the Mayor.

A missionary diocese of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church since 1960, ECP became an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion in 1990, with five constituent dioceses.

"From the time the Episcopal Church sent the first missioners to Philippines and since they have become an autonomous province, we have continued to work closely with our brothers and sisters in the local Church," said Peter Ng, Asia/Pacific Officer in the Office of Anglican and Global Relations, who expressed sadness in hearing news of the demolition. "We sincerely hope that this regrettable incident, and others of like indiscrimination, will not happen again."

The original members of St. Peter's Mission belonged to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), also known as the Philippine Independent Church, until it entrusted the congregation to the jurisdictional care of the Philippine Episcopal Church, as it was formerly known. Property disputes have since roiled the congregation and in mid 2005 the plans to build a gymnasium on the church lot were disclosed.

Despite objections to the project and negotiations for its relocation, several men reportedly entered the church without permission October-November 2005 and began foundational work for the gymnasium project.

Letters of protest regarding the forcible entry and other "illegal" activities were sent by the Diocese of Northern Philippines to District Engineer Leonardo Leyaley and co-defendant Felipe Moises, asking for the work to cease.

In January 2006, construction workers moved the church away from its load-bearing posts causing damage to the structure, despite a declaration by Moises to cease all work while a court case was pending.

A May 30 Civil Case declared the diocese as the lawful possessor of the contested lot and ordered Moises "and all acting in his behalf to desist from further disturbing the peaceful possession of the Diocese over the land in dispute."

Regardless, the defendants continued with construction work and Moises issued warnings that there would be consequences if diocesan carpenters continued to work on church repairs. The carpenters completed repairs ready for the July 9 Sunday service but in the early hours of that morning "a group broke into the church ground and pushed the church off its new concrete posts," an ECP communication states.

The remaining structure was demolished by Moises' group July 12.

"We need to continue to pray and support our brothers and sisters in Philippines as they continue to face the challenges from the government, armed communist insurgencies, and Muslim separatists," he said. "My office will do what ever it can to respond to the needs of ECP."