Living in the midst of uncertainty

Australian missionary Sr Pat Fox describes her experience of standing up to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and championing the poor. On November 3, she was expelled from the country.  

My world turned upside down on 16th April, 2018, when six agents of the Philippines’ Bureau of Immigration came to my house to arrest me. From being unknown, except by those who did actually know me, I became a public figure. I was told by the authorities that they wanted me to go with them to answer some questions. But as things unfolded, it became clear that the intention was to immediately deport me.

However, due to a quick response of people I work with at the Agricultural Workers’ Union, and the arrival of lawyers from the peasant and human rights sectors, the deportation did not take place. Until now, with continuing support of various groups, including different churches and the untiring work of lawyers, I remain in the Philippines. I am still amazed at this support, which I hadn’t expected. Even people I meet in the streets tell me that they are praying that I stay.

The security guards whose office I stayed in overnight were quite sympathetic. They allowed people to bring food, blankets and pillows for me and two companions who stayed with me. The following day, the guards also allowed in a constant stream of visitors, including bishops, priests, sisters, congressmen, people from the community and friends.

In fact, the security guards became very protective of me, especially when I was to be released and they saw a crowd of reporters outside. They were frightened that I might be hurt. It has been a very tense time for me, never knowing what will happen next or whether agents will be back on my doorstep to re-arrest me. This was especially so when I discovered that it was President Rodrigo Duterte himself who ordered my arrest in April.

While I expected the deportation process to proceed as allowed by law with a right to appeal, suddenly the Bureau of Immigration cancelled my missionary visa and gave me 30 days to leave the country. They claimed that I had no right to due process, but after appeals the Department of Justice returned the case to the Bureau of Immigration, saying that there was no provision for forfeiture of my visa as everyone had the right to due process.

I felt a sense of relief in some ways, knowing that at least I still had a visa. But now the deportation case is going ahead. I was surprised when the president named me as the reason for his recent attack on Catholic Church leaders and calling the God of Catholics stupid.

Recently Duterte has said that if the story of the Garden of Eden and original sin stemming from Adam eating the “forbidden fruit” actually happened, then this was a “stupid God”.

I can’t understand how I can be so uppermost in the president’s mind, and clearly he hasn’t done much updating on scripture and the teachings of the Church. He also repeated his tirades about interfering foreigners, so I am once again a little uneasy.

But the whole incident has challenged me to think of my role as a foreign missionary and to verbalise why in early April I joined a fact-finding mission to interview victims of martial law declared in 2017 on the southern island of Mindanao. And I have been able to explain why I have always been supporting struggling farmers, fisher folk, tribal people, workers and urban poor; advocating their calls for land, regular work, housing and respect of their human rights.

The Bureau of Immigration (BI) claimed I breached the conditions of my missionary visa, defining a missionary as one who teaches religion and converts people to their faith. I have been asked to give several talks before various Church groups about my mission, and I think talking, especially in Filipino, makes me even more nervous than facing the deportation case, given that I have always avoided being in the public eye. Often, facing the media has been a challenge for me.

This experience has sent me back to the Bible where we discover a God of justice and compassion who hears the cry of the poor: a God who calls on us to act. I have gone back to Vatican II and its call for us to be a Church of the poor. I have reviewed the social teachings of the Church, making it clear that promoting justice is an integral part of evangelisation. I have also discovered that living the Gospel teachings can get you into trouble with authorities.

The incident that precipitated the president’s anger was when I dared quote the social teachings of the Church to workers who were asking for regularisation of their work with just wages and benefits due to them under the law.

Pope Francis said that we cannot be silent in the face of grave human rights breaches. He reminded us that justice requires systemic change. Through this reflection on the Bible and the social teachings stemming from it, I have reaffirmed my passion to work for the reign of God where everyone is respected and can lead a dignified life. There is the lingering feeling of uncertainty over what will happen to me, but I am buoyed by those who have placed confidence in me as a missionary.

Sr Patricia Fox of the Congregation of Religious Sisters of Our Lady of Sion has been working in the Philippines for 27 years. She was arrested and detained on April 16 for allegedly participating in ‘partisan political activities’ after joining a fact-finding mission into reported human rights abuses in Mindanao. She was released in the afternoon the following day and given 10 days to respond with a counter-affidavit. On April 25, 2018, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) issued an order based on Section 9 of the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940, forfeiting Sister Fox’s missionary visa and downgrading it to a temporary visa, as a result of having “engaged in activities that are not allowed under the terms and conditions of her visa”.
On May 23, 2018, the BI denied Sister Fox’s motion for reconsideration on the order revoking her missionary visa. Sister Fox subsequently appealed the decision before the Department of Justice (DOJ).
On June 18, 2018, in response to the petition for review of the BI’s orders filed by Sister Fox, the DOJ nullified the two BI’s orders forfeiting the missionary visa of Sister Fox, saying that the orders had been issued without legal basis. The DOJ then returned the case to the BI to determine whether the charge and the evidence against Sister Fox actually constituted sufficient grounds for visa cancellation.
On July 19, 2018, Sister Patricia Fox and her legal team received the Bureau of Immigration (BI)’s order for her deportation. The BI 10-page resolution also said that her name was included in the BI blacklist, which will bar her from returning to the Philippines. Sister Fox has appealed against the order.

On November 3, Sr Fox was expelled. The religious spent her last day in Manila taking part in a mass and service activities for the poor and the marginalized. At a farewell press conference at the St. Joseph’s College in Quezon City, before leaving for the Manila airport, she said: “Pope Francis said you cannot call yourself a Christian if, faced with serious human rights violations, you stand by in silence … you have to act, make noise! Where the oppressed are, that’s where church people should be. The Church’s mission is serve others. Words are not enough “. Shortly after landing in her hometown of Melbourne, Sister Patricia told reporters: “At the moment, in the Philippines, human rights violations are increasing and a regime of tyranny is underway. For a long time there has been a culture of impunity, which is now getting worse “. A few hours before, the nun had given some advice to Duterte: “Listen to the poor, not just the military; listen to the poor of the cities, the peasants, the workers, the natives; listen to them and act for them, not just for the rich “.