Filipino activist arrested for disrupting Manila Cathedral mass in Reproductive Health Bill protest

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A photograph of a broadcast journalist holding a microphone to Carlos Celdran as he speaks in an interview. A crowd of demonstrators stand behind him, one holding a sign which reads "11 women die every day due to pregnancy & childbirth causes. SAVE WOMEN'S LIVES PASS THE RH Bill NOW!"
Carlos Celdran being interviewed on-camera at a pro-Reproductive Health Bill rally at the Philippine Congress in November 2009

Popular Filipino social commentator and tour guide Carlos Celdran staged a protest action in Manila, Philippines against church opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill. Dressed as Jose Rizal, Celdran, 37, entered Manila Cathedral during a mass with Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Edward Adams, and other Catholic bishops present, standing before the altar with a sign bearing the word "Damaso" — a reference to the villainous, power-wielding Spanish friar from Rizal's novel Noli Me Tangere, who represents the abuses of the Catholic Church during the 19th century Spanish occupation of the Philippines. He shouted "Stop getting involved in politics!" before he was taken away by the police at around 4:30 p.m. Once outside, Celdran said the Church officials "need to hear what the Filipinos are saying: that 90 percent of the people want the RH [Reproductive Health Bill]."

At around 8:15 p.m. the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines filed charges against Celdran for violation of Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, which prohibits "offending religious feelings." Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes, who previously headed the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission for the Biblical Apostolate (CBCP-ECBA), said, "What is approved by people does not mean it is approved by God."

Celdran reported in a media interview following his arrest that "I kinda showed the [priests] what [civil disobedience] was like. The Millennium Development Goals of the Philippines hinge on controlling the population and maternal health, but they have done nothing but lie and blackmail...the Presidents and deprive the poorest of the poor of reproductive health services." He had announced the action via tweet the previous day, saying: "Carlos Celdran is going to go to Manila Cathedral at 3pm to COUNTER the CBCP/Bible anti-RH group. Anyone want to join me?"

Celdran has been tweeting and giving media interviews from his jail cell. Through Twitter he expressed surprise that the Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines filed charges. He faces up to five years in prison. At approximately 5:25am Manila time, he tweeted "its just hitting me now. I can't believe the CBCP [Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines] has the capacity and the desire to see me jailed. Who is next?"

It appears that this action was part of a larger program of protest, as the previous day he had invited his Facebook friends to a flash mob photo opportunity in front of the Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines taking place October 1, where he reported he would be wearing a bishop's costume.

Celdran was freed almost a day later on 6,000-peso (US$138) bail. Friends of the artist had set up a Facebook fan page calling for his release, drawing more than 12,000 supporters by the time he posted bail.

"I apologize for being rude, but it was necessary for me to be rude," he told reporters while in custody on Thursday. "I am sorry for the method that I used but I have no apologies for the message that I made."

In a statement Friday, Manila's 238 priests expressed "disapproval and condemnation" of the protest.

"These actions cannot by any means be considered within the purview of freedom of expression," the statement said. "Instead they were malicious acts directed towards a faith, a religion that was represented by its leaders and the faithful gathered."

President Benigno Aquino's support of the people's right to contraception has angered the Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines and galvanized church opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill, that calls for contraceptives to be provided in government hospitals and sex education to be taught in public schools.

"We are approaching these issues from the moral aspect like the unborn. Abortion is a grave crime, excommunication is attached to those (acts). That is an issue of gravity. That is a violation of God’s commandment," said Odchimar over the Church-run Radio Veritas.

Malacañang Palace shrugged off Odchimar’s declaration. "We are guided by our conscience. My position has not changed. The state’s duty is to educate our families as to their responsibilities and to respect their decisions if they are in conformity to our laws,” President Aquino said.

Proponents of the Reproductive Health Bill have argued that rapid population growth and high fertility rates have exacerbated crushing poverty, and birth control could be a powerful way to raise living standards.