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Filipino priest provides dignified burial for extra-judicial killing victims

Fr. Flaviano Lopez Villanuvea is incensing the remains of EJK victims' urns (Photo Fr. Flavie Villanueva Facebook)

A Filipino priest, Father Flaviano “Flavie” Lopez Villanueva, belongs to the congregation of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). He is the founder of St. Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center in Tayuman, Manila, Philippines, in July 2015, to help the poor and the homeless. 

The Paghilom (healing) program is one program of St. Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center. It is a non-profit program for widows and orphans, and for the healing and rebuilding of the victims’ family members of extra-judicial killing (EJK) in the Philippines. 

The program was started in 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte started the war on drugs in the Philippines. 

The program extended to the exhumation of the victims’ remains to be cremated with the families’ consent and ashes are buried in a more stable place.  

The 52-year-old, Father Villanueva told NPR, "Since they lost their loved ones, usually their breadwinners, they are not able to afford to procure their private land or box to place their loved ones." 

The family members of the victims could not afford the long-term rental of the gravesites. It cost over $700 for a five-year lease. If they cannot renew after five years, the remains will be exhumed and thrown into a mass with an unmarked grave with others. It will cost $2000 for the long-term 30-40 years leased gravesites.

According to the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency, over 6200 suspects were killed in the anti-drug operations from July 2016 to November 2021.

Jefferson Macatuggal was one of the victims who was killed in the anti-drug war in the Philippines. The 44-year-old, Lorna Macatuggal could not afford a permanent place for her brother, Jefferson Macatuggal, 38, who was killed on March 29, 2017. She could rent the place for a five-year lease because she did not have enough money. 

After five years, Macatuggal heard about the program Paghilom which will help to cremate the bones and give a permanent place to bury the ashes free of charge to her. Thus, Lorna Macatuggal joined the program. The Jefferson Macatuggal family might get some healing to place his remains in a more stable and dignified place with the help of the Paghilom Program.

Fr. Flaviano Lopez Villanuvea (left) carries the body of EJK victims along with others. (Photo Fr. Flavie Villanueva Facebook)

According to Father Villanueva, there were over 50 remains exhumed and cremated free of charge to the families since the beginning of the program in April 2021. It is only 18% of the about 300 families in the program in 2016.

The cost for the service is about $900 for each and does not yet include the place and the urn for the ashes. With the help of friends and donors, they managed to be free from this service. 

After cremation, Father Villanueva turned the ashes of the remains within the marble urn to the families during a handover ceremony in the church. The families kept for a while the ash vessels and placed them in a more stable resting place. 

Father Villanueva said that the project was meant to help both the dead and the living.

"For the families who were robbed of the opportunity to grieve," the priest said. "If they properly do this, with the proper guidance, I think there's a better chance that their tomorrow will be better."

Karen Gomez-Dumpit, a commissioner with the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, thanked the programs like Paghilom because they "help the poorest of the poor."

"Father Flavie witnesses that every day by helping out these families," Karen told NPR. "So, we're very grateful for his work and the foundation, but it takes a village to help these families find healing."

In February 2020, Father Villanueva was one of several Catholic Church leaders to stand trial on the conspiracy of sedition.

Father Villanueva was the first Filipino to receive the Human Rights Tulip Award from the government of the Netherlands and conferred through the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Nov. 24, 2021, for his defending human right via the Paghilom program of SJ Kalinga center.

“The Human Rights Tulip is intended to support human rights defenders and provide them with a platform and visibility, and is awarded annually on December 10, Human Rights Day, at The Hague,” the Dutch embassy in Manila said in a statement. 

The statement continued that they were proud very much to award the first Tulip Award to a Filipino human rights defender, Father Villanueva, on the occasion of the 70th year of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Netherlands.

“Tulip is a flower of hope for the Netherlands. It has deep spirituality that calls people who received it to discern the truth so that we can continue to be carriers of the flower and the message that it carries to others,” the priest said. - Patrick Soe Htun


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