by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service (presbyterianmission.org)
LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Cathy Chang, a mission co-worker serving in the Philippines since 2015, was shocked on April 11 when she found stickers and a tarpaulin with her photo affixed to the front gate of her home with accusations that she is a “Supporter of Terrorist CPP-NPA-NDF” and threatening her to “get out of our country.”
She had been red-tagged.
In order to promote a campaign of fear and distrust, red-tagging is a process of blacklisting individuals or organizations not fully supportive of the policies of the sitting government, such as the Anti-Terrorism Act, the War on Drugs, and Covid response, that violate the human rights and civil liberties of the Filipino people.
Chang, along with husband and fellow mission co-worker Juan Lopez, are serving at the invitation of a PC(USA) global partner, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. Under the administration of current Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte, the UCCP has been among those that have been vocal against the increasing disregard for human rights in the country.
The consequences of such a prophetic action can range from inconvenient to dire.
People who have been red-tagged as “terrorists” have faced false charges. Some have been gunned down on the street or killed while purportedly “resisting arrest.” At the very least, red-tagging, by design, aims to keep people from speaking out against injustice. Even Chang feels pressured to decrease her voice of faith.
She was planning to travel to the United States for the 225th General Assembly to serve as a Mission Advisory Delegate, but she could be prevented from re-entering the Philippines. The designation could also make more difficult the renewal of visas for Chang and Lopez this summer.
Chang and the acting coordinator for World Mission’s Office of Asia and the Pacific, Hery Ramambasoa, are scheduled to act as resource persons at General Assembly related to overture INT-07 about human rights in the Philippines.
UCCP has released a statement for church members and international partners.
“The UCCP condemns in the strongest terms the recent acts of red-tagging and malicious vilification,” the statement reads. “Acts like these are concrete manifestations to blemish the integrity of our Church Workers, our Mission Co-workers, and our Church in general, as it faithfully carries out the mission of Christ to bring good news of hope and life to the masses.”
Since moving to the Philippines to assist global partners with addressing issues of migration and human trafficking, Chang has been aware of the importance of not attracting the attention of the government. On April 9, she and another U.S. visitor, Joe Iosbaker, dialogued with a progressive political party candidate for the Philippine House of Representatives as part of her peace and justice advocacy.
Two days later, she was red-tagged, accused of supporting groups that believe they are engaged in a revolutionary war for national liberation, but whom the Duterte government has designated as terrorists.
Iosbaker was in the Philippines for eight days. He was red-tagged the day before Chang with tarpaulins, both at his hotel and at the front of the UCCP national offices. He was able to get out of the country and is now safely back in the U.S.
It is unclear how the government identified Chang. She believes she could have been followed, or her information could have been pulled from government records. A precedent for targeting missionaries was set in 2018 when a Catholic nun who had lived in the Philippines for almost 30 years was red-tagged, identified as an undesirable alien and forced to leave the country.
In the same year, an American missionary and two young adult fellows from Malawi and Zimbabwe, all from the United Methodist Church, were similarly denied visas and forced to leave. All of them were targeted after mission activities that drew attention to injustice and human rights violations in the southern island of Mindanao.
Chang and Lopez have been working with the UCCP Office of the General Secretary and the Partnership and Ecumenical Relations Unit. They have been provided spiritual, material and legal assistance through the UCCP attorney. They believe what happens next will be determined by the upcoming May 9 national election to elect the country’s president and vice-president, senators, members of the House of Representatives, and municipal officials, when 67 million Filipinos will head to the polls.
The candidates for president are former presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella; labour leader Leody de Guzman; Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso; former defense chief Norberto Gonzales; Senator Ping Lacson; businessman Faisal Mangondato; former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the former president who presided over 10 years of martial law; doctor and lawyer Jose Montemayor Jr; Senator Manny Pacquiao; and Vice President Leni Robredo. In surveys, Marcos Jr. and Robredo are the front-runners. While Marcos Jr. is expected to continue practices such as red-tagging, Robredo is a more progressive candidate who has pledged to open democratic spaces and stop some of the policies and programs of the current administration.
Chang and Lopez say the country is divided, just like the street on which they live, which has signs supporting different candidates. Even many of the UCCP churches are divided in the choice of presidential candidates. But on the whole, they are united in their vision of an egalitarian, just and peaceful society.
Chang connected with the United States Embassy to explain the incident, both to seek their advocacy on her behalf and to ensure that she does not become the target of a U.S. investigation because of the red-tagging.
“It’s surreal,” Chang said in a Zoom interview. “I am doing OK, but this feels very personal. I wish that I had more time and energy for ministry.”
Chang and Lopez met in 2002 while serving in Egypt as young adults. She was serving with the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, and he was serving with Action Chrétienne en Orient (Christians in Action in the East), a mission agency supported by French Protestants. They married in 2008 while Chang was a pastoral resident at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania. In 2009, she became associate pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Midland, Michigan, while he continued his career in social work before entering mission service. Chang is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the Presbytery of Lake Huron.