Obituary: Bishop Antonio Fortich – ‘Bishop of the Poor’ (1914-2003)

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 28, Advent 2003

Bishop Emeritus Antonio Fortich, known as the ‘bishop of the poor’ and ‘the man of peace’, died in July 2003, aged 89. He spent virtually his entire life in the Catholic Church serving the people of his native Negros, the sugar island of the Philippines. He was the Bishop of Bacolod (the provincial capital) from 1967 until his retirement in 1989. To quote from his obituary in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (3/7/03; ‘‘Bishop of the poor’ is dead’):

‘His first act was to call on sugar planters to give just wages to their workers. He stressed the workers’ right to organise unions. A controversial pastoral letter he issued in 1969 brought attention to the plight of the sugar farm workers, especially the ‘sacada’ seasonal workers. The message lost him friends and supporters. Unfazed, Fortich went on to create the Church Social Action Committee to make the diocese responsive to the needs of the time. By the 1970s, the diocese saw the flowering of social action programmes and the poor in Negros found in the Catholic Church a new ally for their survival.

‘Despite the danger of being called a Communist, Fortich instituted the process of empowerment by adopting the Latin American experience by building Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) that advocated non-violence, grew in militancy in opposing human rights violations, proposed land reform, and challenged the laws of the Marcos regime. Fortich also put Church property under land reform, started a legal aid scheme to help the poor, and set up a radio and television station.

Negros, The ‘Social Volcano’

‘In the early 1980s, as the plight of the poor worsened with the sugar industry reeling from its plunder during the Marcos years, Fortich continued to be the outspoken champion of their rights. The international media quoted him extensively and among his famous quotes was his description of Negros: ‘We are sitting on a social volcano, which could erupt anytime’. Fortich was ridiculed by the rich and powerful for bringing to the attention of the world the starving and malnourished children of Negros…

‘Fortich, believing in the need for peaceful change, became national co-chairman of the National Ceasefire Committee, to pursue provincial and regional peace talks with the Communists. It was also in the late 1980s that a strong anti-insurgency campaign was launched in Negros and Rightist groups charged Fortich and his priests with being pro-Communist. A little after midnight on April 28, 1987, a grenade was thrown on the landing near the door of Fortich’s room, leaving steel fragments everywhere.

‘Fortich survived the incident and remained an outspoken advocate of human rights. For what was seen as his controversial and unwavering stand for the needy, Fortich was retired before being promoted to archbishop. But, even after retirement, he had continued to speak on behalf of the poor. Two years ago, when asked when he would stop championing causes, Fortich had said: ‘When the country attains peace, because that will mean that the needs of the poor have been answered’’ .

His death attracted obituaries from many progressive groups. For example, Karapatan, the leading human rights organisation, put out a tribute headed ‘Pastor of the Struggling Masses and Prophet of Social Justice’ (25/7/03). In it, the Bishop was referred to as ‘Kumander Tony’, as he was known to the movement. ‘As a prophet, he stood for the truth and became the mouthpiece of the anguish of the suffering Negrenses. As a pastor, he chose the poor and oppressed to care for and accompany in their quest for freedom and total emancipation from the bondage of exploitation…’.

Fabulous Wealth For The Sugar Barons; Grinding Poverty For The Sugar Workers

Some context is necessary, for New Zealand readers. Nowhere is Philippine feudalism seen more brutally than in Negros. A handful of extremely rich families own virtually all the land on the island, which is dominated by the sugar monoculture. These families are not about to give up their land and wealth and they have private armies, which have no hesitation in killing anyone whom the landlords don’t like. The actual Communists have guns and are more than capable of looking after themselves, so the private armies terrorise the sugar workers’ union instead, as they’re unarmed and an easier target. I first went to the Philippines in 1987, on an exposure tour. To research this, I re-read my report from that trip for the first time in many, many years. It brought back vivid memories. To quote from it:

‘We stayed a night with a sugarworker’s family out in a plantation on Negros. This was a progressive landowner – he allowed his peasants to grow rice on borrowed land during the off season. We witnessed a divvy up of some of this rice – of every 12 bundles, the landlord got 11. The peasants divided the rest. The family we stayed with was headed by a carpenter, so he’d built his own, quite lovely, bamboo house. He owned it –but not the land. Not even a progressive landlord will relinquish ownership of any of his land… Grinding poverty exerts a systematic daily violence all of its own – a visit to the malnourished childrens’ ward at Bacolod Hospital, is a heartwrenching experience. The sugarworker’s family we stayed with – the wife was up well before dawn, cooking and preparing the kids for school. Work proper was well under way by daybreak – when asked what they did in the evenings, they said they discussed their problems…’. In Bacolod we visited the National Federation of Sugar Workers and were going to stay overnight in their office, but it was deemed too dangerous because of the number of threats and attacks against it from the landlords’ goons. We stayed in a hotel – it was the only city I visited in the Philippines still to have a curfew (martial law had ended in 1986, with the overthrow of Marcos).

The late Father John Curnow, who founded the Philippines Solidarity movement in New Zealand, regarded Negros as his favourite part of the Philippines. Before I went on that first trip, I went to see John to be briefed. It was due to his influence that I was able to meet Bishop Fortich, in Bacolod. To quote from my report, again:

Assassination Attempt

‘He (Fortich) has tirelessly campaigned for social justice. He was guarantor of the physical safety of Communist peace negotiators when they came down from the hills into Negros’ main city, Bacolod, in the 1986 ceasefire (Bacolod’s population is 360,000. 150,000 gathered to welcome the representatives of the National Democratic Front, the political coalition that represents the Communist Party and its New People’s Army, amongst others). While I was in Bacolod, several hundred evacuees from military terror were sheltering in a seminary at Fortich’s church. Earlier this year (1987), somebody threw a grenade at his living quarters – it bounced and exploded harmlessly. Graffiti on Bacolod walls reads – ‘Bishop Fortich, Your Path Lies To Hell’. The death squad that tried to kill him is the KKK – Christian Crusade Against Communism. They are responsible for daily death threats against the National Federation of Sugar Workers, whose stronghold is Negros…’.

It was a privilege for me to meet him. He was an old man then, only two years away from retirement, but was still very active in the struggle for justice for the poor, oppressed and terrorised of Negros. He was one in a long and honourable line of progressive clergy and will be remembered as one of the true friends of the Filipino people.

—Murray Horton, Kapatiran,

Kapatiran (“Solidarity”) is the newsletter of the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa. Annual membership is $15. Contact: PSNA, Box 2450, Christchurch, New Zealand. cafca@chch.planet.org.nz www.converge.org.nz/psna

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