TIME Philippines

Retrieval of More Than 30 Slain Filipino Commandos Under Way

At least 21 bodies found in southern Philippines, where separatist Islamic insurgency rages

(MANILA) — Philippine police have recovered at least 21 bodies of the dozens commandos who were mowed down by Muslim rebel gunfire in a far-flung southern village where they moved in over the weekend to hunt down one of southeast Asia’s most-wanted terrorists, officials said Monday.

Army-backed police and villagers also helped take 11 wounded members of the national police’s elite Special Action Forces away from the battle scene in and around the village of Tukanalipao in Mamasapano township, where the government suffered its biggest single-day combat loss in many years, officials said.

Mayor Tahirudin Benzar Ampatuan told The Associated Press by telephone that village leaders saw the bodies of at least policemen in a clearing following Sunday’s fighting. Many of the dead were stripped to their underwear, with their assault firearms missing.

“What they described to me was gruesome,” Ampatuan said.

The commandos had sneaked into the Muslim rebel community in two groups, but apparently had “misencounter” with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim insurgent group, which signed a peace deal with the government in March and has had a relatively successful cease-fire agreement with government troops in recent years, Ampatuan said.

Under the truce, government forces are required to coordinate anti-terror assaults and other law enforcement operations with the Moro rebels to prevent accidental fighting. But the aapproximately 100 police commandos did not notify the rebels before they arrived in the dark, Moro rebel leader Mohagher Iqbal said.

“If somebody barges into your house, what will you do?” Iqbal said by telephone.

He said the 11,000-strong Moro group would file a protest over the action of the police commandos, but added the incident was not likely to undermine the peace process, a view shared by Philippine officials.

“The peace process will not be affected because we’re not dealing against the MILF here,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said, referring to the Liberation Front.

“We are up against the enemies of the state,” Gazmin said, referring to breakaway Muslim rebels, called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, who also have a presence in Tukanalipao and reportedly helped subdue the outnumbered commandos.

Gazmin said the police were trying to arrest Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian terror suspect, and a Filipino bomb-making expert, Abdul Basit Usman. U.S. and Philippine authorities have blamed them for several deadly bombings in the south.

Washington has offered up to $5 million reward for the Malaysian’s capture.

Ampatuan said the fighting ended when members of a cease-fire committee and foreign truce monitors intervened.

The peace pact, signed in March, aims to establish a more powerful and better-funded autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south and end a decades-long rebellion. The conflict has left 150,000 people dead and helped stunt development in the country’s poorest region.

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Jan. 16 – Jan. 23

From escalating violence in eastern Ukraine and a thousands strong march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. to priests photographing Pope Francis in the Philippines and a surprising, glowing seascape in Hong Kong, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Philippines

Pope Francis and the Mystery of Manila’s Vanishing Street Children

A homeless child in the streets of Manila in 2014.
A homeless child in the streets of Manila in 2014. Noel Celis—AFP/Getty Images

Was the Philippine capital really purged of unsightly urchins for the Pope's recent visit, as media reports allege?

Pope Francis took the helm of the Catholic Church last year, vowing to refashion the institution “for the poor.” Yet during his recent five-day visit to the Philippines, where he presided over Mass for more than six million rapturous worshippers, it appeared many of the nation’s most impoverished were cruelly banished from view.

As the Pontiff touched down in Asia’s most Catholic nation, reports emerged that street children had been rounded up and caged in order to sanitize Manila’s streets. Local authorities vehemently denied this was a case, pointing out that the accompanying photographs of an emaciated toddler and young girl handcuffed to a metal pole had in fact been taken months earlier.

However, rumors continued to swirl as more anecdotal evidence arrived. So was the Philippine capital purged of unsightly urchins? In a word, yes, although only a small fraction of this was anything new.

According to local activists, street children are constantly being rounded up across this sprawling metropolis of 12 million. This is generally for vagrancy and petty crime — they are often scapegoats for the deeds committed by organized gangs — and, although numbers are hard to pin down, the Pope’s visit seemed to herald a slight uptick.

“There’s definitely been a ramp up,” Catherine Scerri, deputy director of the Bahay Tuluyan NGO that helps street children, tells TIME. “They were definitely told not to be visible, and many of them felt that if they didn’t move they would be taken forcibly.”

Those detained end up a various municipal detention centers sprinkled all over Metro Manila, says Father Shay Cullen, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated founder of the Preda Foundation NGO. These local adult jails each adjoin euphemistically named “children’s homes,” which, like the adult facility, has bars on the windows.

Children are summarily kept for anything up to three months without charge, with little ones sharing cells with young adults. Many fall prey to serious sexual and physical abuse: Kids just eight-years-old are often tormented into performing sex acts on the older detainees, says Cullen. (Amnesty International documented such abuses in a December report.)

“They are locked up in a dungeon,” says Cullen, explaining that some 20,000 children see the inside of a jail cell annually across the Philippines. “We keep asking why they put these little kids in with the older guys.”

Nevertheless, Philippines Welfare Secretary Corazon Juliano-Soliman explicitly denies that homeless children were rounded up for the Papal visit, highlighting that they were, in fact, central to the 78-year-old Pontiff’s reception. Some 400 homeless kids — albeit in bright, new threads — sang at a special event (and posed awkward theological questions.)

Any children detained, explains Juliano-Soliman, were “abandoned, physically or mentally challenged or found to be vagrant or in trouble with the law, and we are taking care of them.” Father Cullen’s allegations, Juliano-Soliman suggests, are a sympathy ploy to win donations “One can’t help but think it’s a good fundraising action,” she says wryly.

However, Juliano-Soliman did confirm that 100 homeless families — comprising 490 parents and children — were taken off the street of Roxas Boulevard, the palm-fringed thoroughfare arcing Manila Bay along which Pope Francis traveled several times, and taken about an hour and a half’s drive away to the plush Chateau Royal Batangas resort. Room rates there range from $90 to $500 per night.

This sojourn lasted from Jan. 14, the day before Pope Francis’s visit, until Jan. 19, the day he left. It was organized by the Department of Social Welfare’s Modified Conditional Cash Transfer program, which provides grants to aid “families with special needs.”

Juliano-Soliman says this was done so that families would “not be vulnerable to the influx of people coming to witness the Pope.” Pressed to clarify, she expressed fears that the destitute “could be seen as not having a positive influence in the crowd” and could be “used by people who do not have good intentions.”

For Scerri, though, this reasoning doesn’t cut it: “It’s very difficult to believe that children and families who have lived on the streets for most of their lives need to be protected from what was a very joyous, very happy, very peaceful celebration.”

In fact, families involved were only told two days prior that they were to make the trip to Chateau Royal Batangas. “Many felt that if they didn’t participate that they would be rounded up,” says Scerri, adding that those who returned to their usual digs by Malate Catholic Church found large signs had been painted in the interim that prohibited sleeping rough.

Ultimately, whether jailed or stashed in a resort, “there’s nothing new,” says Father Cullen. “Every time dignitaries come it’s a common phenomenon for more children to be locked up.”

So where did Manila’s street children go? The truth is that most people didn’t really care, just as long as they did.

Read next: Pope Calls Out Philippines on Corruption and ‘Scandalous’ Inequality

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME contraception

Pope Francis Tells Catholics That They Shouldn’t Be Breeding ‘Like Rabbits’

After hopping around Asia, the Pontiff condemns artificial contraception

Pope Francis used his return journey from Asia to insist that the Catholic Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception does not necessitate followers bearing an enormous brood of children.

“Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits — but no,” the 78-year-old Argentine told reporters while flying from the Philippines back to Rome, reports Reuters.

Francis spoke of meeting a Filipina woman who had risked her life to give birth to seven children, and revealed that he scolded her for her “irresponsibility.” He has developed a reputation for using plain, colloquial language to get his points across.

But despite garnering praise as a liberal reformer, Francis continues to condemn artificial birth-control methods, criticizing the Philippines’ recent legislation to make contraceptives more easily available to the public. He called these laws “ideological colonization,” claiming they conflict with traditional family values. (Advocates insist birth control empowers women and guards against sexually transmitted diseases.)

Francis explained that there are church-approved natural contraceptive methods that can prevent Catholics from having too many children. These consist primarily of abstinence while a woman is fertile.

[Reuters]

TIME Philippines

Pope Leaves Manila After Drawing Record Crowd of 6 Million

Francis dedicated the final homily of his Asia trip to children, given that the Mass fell on an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus

(MANILA, PHILIPPINES) — Pope Francis flew out of this Catholic bastion in Asia on Monday after a weeklong trip that included a visit to Sri Lanka and drew what Filipino officials says was a record crowd of 6 million faithful in a Manila park where he celebrated Mass.

President Benigno Aquino III, church leaders and 400 street children yelling “Pope Francis we love you,” saw him off at a Manila air base, where the pontiff, carrying a black travel bag, boarded a Philippine Airlines plane for a flight to Rome. Standing at the top of the stairs, the pope waved to the crowd, slightly bowed his head, then walked into the plane.

Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos lined Manila’s streets, with police keeping a close watch, to have their final glimpse of Francis, who smiled and waved aboard an open-sided, white popemobile.

“He’s my No. 1 world leader,” said Rita Fernandez, a 63-year-old mother of four, who stood on a street near the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila where Francis stayed during his four-day visit.

“He rides on a bus. He flew to Tacloban to visit the typhoon survivors despite the storm and he stops to talk to the poor. He’s a living saint,” said Fernandez, who held a cellphone with a camera and wore a yellow shirt showing a smiling Francis.

A crowd estimated at a record 6 million people by officials poured into Manila’s rain-soaked streets and its biggest park Sunday as Pope Francis ended his Asian pilgrimage with an appeal for Filipinos to protect their young from sin and vice so they can become missionaries of the faith.

The crowd estimate, which could not be independently verified, included people who attended the pope’s final Mass in Rizal Park and surrounding areas, and lined his motorcade route, said the chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Francis Tolentino.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican had received the figure officially from local authorities and that it was a record, surpassing the 5 million who turned out for St. John Paul II’s final Mass in the same park in 1995.

Francis dedicated the final homily of his Asia trip to children, given that the Mass fell on an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus. His focus was a reflection of the importance that the Vatican places on Asia as the future of the church since it’s one of the few places where Catholic numbers are growing — and on the Philippines as the largest Catholic nation in the region.

“We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected,” Francis said. “And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to a life on the streets.”

Francis made a triumphant entry into Rizal Park, riding on a popemobile based on the design of a jeepney, the modified U.S. Army World War II jeep that is a common means of public transport here. He wore the same cheap, plastic yellow rain poncho handed out to the masses during his visit to the typhoon-hit eastern city of Tacloban a day earlier.

The crowd — a sea of humanity in colorful rain ponchos spread out across the 60 hectares (148 acres) of parkland and boulevards surrounding it — erupted in shrieks of joy when he drove by, a reflection of the incredible resonance Francis’ message about caring for society’s most marginal has had in a country where about a quarter of its 100 million people lives in poverty.

Francis dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor and marginal. He denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and traveled to Tacloban to offer prayers for survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadly 2013 storm that devastated one of the Philippines’ poorest regions.

Earlier Sunday, Francis drew a huge crowd to Manila’s Catholic university, where he came close to tears himself hearing two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned.

The pope ditched his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish to respond to 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. Palomar, a former street child rescued by a church-run foundation, told him of children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents and end up on the streets using drugs or in prostitution.

“Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children?” Palomar asked through tears. “And why are there so few who are helping us?”

A visibly moved Francis said he had no answer. “Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question,” he said.

“Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry,” the pope said. “But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don’t know how to cry.”

And he added: “There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.”

___

Associated Press writers Oliver Teves, Jim Gomez and Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.

TIME Philippines

Pope Francis Opposes Contraceptives During Address of Millions in Philippines

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile after leading a Mass at Rizal Park in Manila
Pope Francis waves from the popemobile after leading a Mass at Rizal Park in Manila on Jan. 18, 2015. Erik De Castro—Reuters

It was the largest papal event ever

Pope Francis discussed population control and childcare Sunday before a crowd of millions in the Philippines capital of Manila, his final stop on a weeklong tour of Asia.

In longstanding tradition with the Catholic church, Pope Francis continued to urge families to oppose artificial contraception, the Wall Street Journal reported. The topic is particularly controversial in the Philippines, which is home to 80 million Catholics and recently expanded access to contraceptives in order to combat its high birthrate.

“The family all too often needs to be protected against insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred,” Pope Francis told the crowd. “We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected.”

City officials estimated about six million people attended the event, which would be a record-setting crowd, BBC reported. About five million people welcomed Pope John Paul II to Manila in 1995.

Earlier Sunday, Pope Francis had attended a meeting at Manila’s University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s only pontifical university, to hear testimonials from country’s thousands of impoverished young people.

“Many terrible things happened to (street children) like drugs and prostitution,” said a former street child named Jun Chura. “Why is God allowing such things to happen? And why are there only very few people helping us?”

In response, the Pope departed from his prepared remarks and spoke in his native Spanish for 40 minutes, asking, “Why do children suffer so much?”

[WSJ]

TIME Philippines

Pope Calls Out Philippines on Corruption and ‘Scandalous’ Inequality

Pope Francis Visits Philippines - Day 2
Pope Francis waves to thousands of followers as he arrives at the Manila Cathedral on Jan. 16, 2015, in Manila Lisa Maree Williams—Getty Images

His remarks come on the first day of a highly anticipated four-day visit

Pope Francis has called on the Philippine government to fulfill its pledges to crack down on the country’s rampant corruption.

Addressing assembled dignitaries, including President Benigno Aquino, at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Friday, the Pontiff called on “everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor.”

He added that “it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good” and asked Filipinos “to hear the voice of the poor.” Injustice and oppression, he said, had given rise to “glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities.”

The Pope’s remarks will have resonance for Aquino. When he campaigned for President in 2010, he vowed to fight poverty and tackle corruption and said that for too long the Philippines’ ruling elite had grown rich at the expense of the poor. The campaign message hit home in a country where about 1 in 4 lives in poverty. But while steps in the right direction have been made, official impunity and social inequality persist.

Filipinos, meanwhile, are sure to be pleased by the Pontiff’s comments. The country’s vibrant civil society has fought hard for decades to improve governance and give ordinary people a better shot. Their efforts have been stymied, though, by political infighting, special interests, and sclerotic courts that often operate at the behest of the wealthy and well-connected.

Pope Francis is on the first day of a highly anticipated four-day visit to Asia’s most Catholic nation. During his stay, he will tour areas hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) in 2013, and deliver Mass to what’s expected to be a millions-strong crowd in the capital.

TIME Philippines

Pope Francis Praises Typhoon Haiyan Survivors and Filipino Migrant Workers

Pope Francis, Benigno Aquino III
Pope Francis, right, is welcomed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III as he arrives for the welcoming ceremony on Jan. 16, 2015, at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila Bullit Marquez—AP

Tribute paid to the "heroic strength, faith and resilience" of Filipinos

Pope Francis marked his second day in Asia’s most Catholic nation by praising the contribution made to society by Filipino migrant workers as well as paying tribute to victims and survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which killed over 6,000 people when it tore through the archipelago nation in November 2013.

Speaking at the Malacanang presidential palace on Friday, the Pontiff told tens of thousands of rapturous Filipinos, as well as President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, that his “visit is meant to express my closeness to our brothers and sisters who endured the suffering, loss and devastation” caused by Haiyan.

“Together with many people throughout the world, I have admired the heroic strength, faith and resilience demonstrated by so many Filipinos in the face of this natural disaster, and so many others,” he said.

Pope Francis is the first leader of the Holy See in two decades to visit the Philippines, where the 100 million population is 80% Catholic. He arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Thursday from Sri Lanka, where he called for reconciliation after the island state’s brutal civil war.

Speaking in Manila on Friday, the 78-year-old Argentine also singled out the country’s many migrant workers for praise, citing the “oft-neglected yet real contribution of Filipinos of the diaspora to the life and welfare of the societies in which they live.”

Read the full transcript of his speech here.

TIME Philippines

Millions Expected to See Pope Francis Visit the Philippines

Pope Francis waves to the crowd next to President Aquino upon his arrival at Villamor Air Base in Manila
Pope Francis waves to the crowd next to President Benigno Aquino upon his arrival at Villamor Air Base for a state and pastoral visit, in Manila on Jan. 15, 2015. Erik De Castro—Reuters

Asia's most Catholic nation will treat him like a rock star

You know the expression, more Catholic than the Pope? Well, the Philippines, more than any other country, comes close. More than 80% of the former Spanish colony’s population — or about 70 million people — are Catholic, and the Church still holds considerable sway in matters of state. It is the only country outside the Vatican City, for instance, where divorce is illegal. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1995, he was greeted like a rock star; a record-breaking 5 million people attended his Manila mass.

Now it’s Pope Francis’ turn for a grand tour of Asia’s most Catholic nation. He lands in the Philippines Thursday evening, local time, to start a four-day visit. His itinerary includes a trip to the area hit by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda), and a mass in the capital, Manila, on Sunday. Local authorities are expecting a millions-strong gathering, despite concerns about security (more on that here) and the possibility of torrential rain.

If previous visits are any indication, it’s going to be a party. Filipinos are convening on the capital from across the country and around the world. Many will stand in line for days for the chance to see him. If they don’t they can still buy all manner of Pope merchandise — from stamps to t-shirts to commemorative children’s books. Odds are good that the crowds will at some point burst into the event’s official song.

Amid all the pageantry, Filipinos will be listening closely for Pope Francis’ perspective on issues of national concern. Although the Philippines is still heavily influenced by Church thinking — gay marriage is banned; abortion is illegal — over the last decade or so, there has been a move away from a hard-line stance on the use of modern methods of contraception, such as condoms and birth control pills.

For years, even as contraception became the norm elsewhere, the country’s Catholic establishment remained firmly opposed to the use any type of prophylactic, casting condoms as anti-Filipino and an affront to God’s will. In 2000, the mayor of Manila effectively banned the distribution of condoms in government hospitals and clinics.

In 2012, after more than a decade of debate, the government finally passed a national family planning bill. It was victory for rights campaigners and women’s groups, and the fulfillment of a campaign promise for President Benigno Aquino III, but remains deeply unpopular among conservatives.

With a Pope in town for the first time in 10 years, Filipinos will be keen to hear his thoughts on this and other questions. Much has changed in Filipino society since 1995; their love for the Pope has not.

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