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‘Exhaust all legal means’ in defending West Philippine Sea claim - Filipino bishops

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Iba Bishop Bartolome Santos Jr, San Fernando de La Union Bishop Socrates Mesiona, Taytay Bishop Broderick Pabillo, and Lingayen-Dagupan Auxiliary Bishop Fidelis Layog were signed the statement.

Five Filipino bishops called on the Philippine government to go beyond words and exhaust all legal means in defending the country’s claim to the West Philippine Sea.

The prelates issued a joint statement criticizing the aggressive incursions of Chinese vessels into the disputed maritime zone and emphasizing the need to protect Filipino fisherfolk residing in these areas.

“All legal means must be exhausted so that what nature has so bountifully bestowed on us may be ours and may feed generations of Filipinos yet to be born, and if present diplomatic endeavors do not suffice, then it is permissible and morally necessary even to have recourse to the friendship of allies who can help us defend what is ours!” the document stated.

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Iba Bishop Bartolome Santos Jr., San Fernando de La Union Bishop Socrates Mesiona, Taytay Bishop Broderick Pabillo, and Lingayen-Dagupan Auxiliary Bishop Fidelis Layog signed the statement.

All five bishops look after dioceses with coastal borders to the West Philippine Sea, with fisherfolk comprising a majority of the Catholic population.

The prelates emphasized that this maritime dispute is not just an issue about fish and aquatic resources but, above all else, the well-being of the fisherfolk.

“The Church stands with them, and as [shepherds] from various ecclesiastical jurisdictions with fisherfolk within our pastoral care, we stand with them and we bishops give voice to their fears and anxieties, their woes and their concerns,” they said.

The bishops noted how the Chinese’s forcible occupation of the Philippine waters forced Filipinos to venture far into the open sea amid the threats of being bullied by foreigners just to make a living.

“They are one of the primary people who receive insufficient assistance from the government. We ask our brothers and sisters in faith to uphold the rights of our poor fisherfolk, aid in keeping their livelihood, and help in establishing the future of their families,” said the statement.

Despite pleading with the government to take a stronger stance on the West Philippine Sea claim, the bishops clarified that violence can never be an option.

“We seek peace, and it cannot be a moral option to wage war. But neither is it just for the leaders of our country to allow our fisherfolk to be driven out of fishing grounds over which international law recognizes our rights,” they said.

The Philippines and China are in a long-time dispute over the ownership of the West Philippine Sea, or the South China Sea.

Numerous reports of Chinese vessels harassing small boats of Filipino fishermen have been recorded in the past several years.

Just last January, personnel of the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) reportedly ordered Filipino fishermen to throw back everything they caught in the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll located in the disputed maritime territory.

The Philippines currently upholds the decision of the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the matter, which ruled in their favor in a historic case against China in 2016.

The CCG and a joint military patrol between the Philippines and the United States currently patrol the disputed sea. - Luke Godoy


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