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The other side of religion - The Observer

Ashok Mahajan ()
October 10, 1998

Title: The other side of religion
Author: Ashok Mahajan
Publication: The Observer
Date: October 10, 1998

Religion has often been a driving force in the reform of social abuses,
but it has also been associated with cruelty and oppression. The
Filipinos were 'christianised' by Spanish friars in the name of King
Philip II, more than four hundred fifty years ago. They were renamed by
them "Philippines" in honour of their Spanish king.

Christianity then meant inclusion into the Roman Catholic Church by
force, that is, by the sword. It meant soldiers and friars grabbing
vast tracts of land from tribal natives, who had worked and lived on it
for centuries, and making these as their own.
For refusing to be proselytised, the punishments were inhuman.

Says Manila-based Sister Christine Tan, a nun from the Sister of the
Good Shepherd order, who is also a social activist, "I remember a
classmate relating the story of her grandfather, who had the harrowing
experience of witnessing the massacre of all the members of his family.
Spanish soldiers threatened them with death if they did not allow
themselves to be baptized. His grandfather hid behind the sofa. There he
saw his father, mother and seven brothers and sisters stabbed to death,
the last one, a baby, thrown up into the air, and caught by the tip of
the bayonet."

Christine Tan's own father recalled how his parents would be dragged
early m the morning to the town proper, to carry heavy adobe stones and
place them, one on top of the other, to build the church. Decades
later, the Bishop in Manila would boast about the fact that there was no
town in the archipelago without a Catholic church.

As years moved on, Christianity meant the mingling of Iberian blood with
the locals - through a proliferation of illegitimate babies produced by
friars and soldiers. Most of these out-of-wedlock children were named
after symbols of Catholicity, such as "Reyes" after the King, "Cruz"
after the Cross, "Santos" after the saints.

Sister Christine Tan herself, in all humility, confesses to be such a
bastardized product. She says, "It was a blind world. Everything the
Pope said was considered absolute truth. Everything the Church did was
for the good of all people. There was no room for questioning or
criticizing. There was no room for Non-Catholics."

Formal education arrived in the Philippines first through the tutelage
of Spanish sisters who were supplanted later by those from Germany,
France, Belgium, the Netherlands and America. Gradually, the islanders'
own values and traditions were swept aside is something foul-smelling.
The spirits of their trees and mountains, their gods and ancestors were
looked on as superstition. In their place, plaster-cast images of
Italian saints in Roman costumes were hoisted on top of pedestals, and
the Malays knelt to them in obeisance - scraping and bruising their
knees in genuflections.

In the drainingly hot tropics, the novitiates were dressed like the
French nuns with woollen habits and capes. The boys in schools sweated
in their uniforms of long-sleeved blouses and thigh-reaching white
stockings. The problem was that the foreign missionary had a different
starting point. He started not where the people were in their customs
and beliefs, but in what Rome had to say. He also started by "adding,"
not by discovering what they already had.

The missionary added rituals, churches, fears and threats. Rarely was
there a pastor who took upon himself the Filipino, as Jesus took upon
himself, man. Ordinarily, he kept his lifestyle more comfortable than
that of the native of the Philippines. He lived in residentials with no
problem of running water, or the hunger pangs of the destitutes who
surrounded him, but whom he did not recognise.

While lack of physical space was the primary problem of most Filipinos,
the missionary on the other hand was associated with open grounds, cars,
free time, and sabbatical leaves. In the last three decades,
Philippines has seen a vast influx of padres from Europe and Evangelists
from the States. They have powerful voices and deep pockets with the
latest electronic devices, preaching Jesus and promising cures. Nothing
of social injustice is alluded to.

And although, the First Asian Bishops Conference proclaimed its aim "to
be one with the cries, fears, aspirations, dreams of the people," the
rectors stay away from the ghettos of small people, shunning their
deprivation and their struggles. For the clerics, religion has become
only a means to acquire the perks and privileges of the comfortable

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