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"Erap"-tured in the Philippines

December 7, 2000

The morning before the impeachment trial of Philippine president Joseph “Erap” Estrada I sit in my Manila hotel room listening to Christmas music on the radio. Over 20,000 protesters are chanting outside the downtown Senate House. A late night vigil produced burning images of the president, a former movie star, who has allegedly accepted over 11 million dollars in, among other things, gambling receipts.

I have not seen any of these protests myself. And it’s funny to watch BBC footage of the thousands of Filipinos yelling and screaming somewhere nearby. This morning’s paper, the Philippine Star, has an inviting cover story. Starting at three today a group of anti-Estrada protesters will surround the Senate building in what their leaders call the “Jericho March.” The article further reported that “once the Senate has been completely surrounded by demonstrators, a protestor will climb down a truck draped in yellow and bearing the words “Jericho March,” and light a torch placed on the Senate steps.” The police department declared that it would not allow the surrounding of the Senate. All this makes me picture in my mind a small group of protesters cordoned off around the corner of the Senate jumping off a Jeepney, an elongated jeep-come-taxi that the Filipinos decorate to the hilt. That might be worth seeing.

This is just a small example of the role that faith plays in the Philippine islands. Catholicism is the religion of 98% of the 11 million inhabitants of the city of Manila, close to 90% of the rest of the 75 million strong population. God Blesses fill the streets, painted on walls, Jeepneys and t-shirts. Taking a walk through one of Manila’s poorer areas you see that even the graffiti holds a few words to God.

The first day checking out the city, life, for all I noticed, seemed to be moving at a usual pace. It was a Sunday and kids hung out outside shooting baskets and calling “Hey Man!” or “Hey Joe”, even a “What’s up Doc?” as I passed, a good example of the left-over American impact on the country’s people. Christmas decorations were up everywhere and back-streets were closed as Sunday Masses wore on. There are Santas and mangers everywhere in Manila, they cling to 80-story buildings – large “Peace on Earth” signs flashing – and hang off rear-view mirrors in taxicabs. Christmas music rotates one-to-one with songs on just about every radio station.

“Christmas is a big deal here,” said Ernie, a Filipino working in Manila. “It’s a much more pure thing here than in America, where it’s so commercialized. We have a special Christmas Mass starting eight days before Christmas.” Ernie explained that the Mass, beginning on December 16, takes place every morning at four. “I try to go at least once every year. It’s very social. You go and then there’s the food.”

This display of early morning devotion is somewhat tame compared to the show of faith surrounding the Easter holiday that some Filipinos take part. Every spring on Good Friday the devout head towards of small man-made hill outside Manila to hammer themselves to crosses. “There’s one guy who’s done it for the past nine years,” said Sean, an American artist living in Manila. “He said he’d continue to do so until his sick mother became well.”

Heading downtown to the old Spanish-walled area of Manila, Intramoros, I had plenty of time to ponder all this outward show of religion in the stop-and-go traffic that plagues the place. Black smog pouring out of exhaust pipes (or places where exhaust pipes should be), garbage strewn thick on the streets. The night before I had been trying to cross a large road on my way to grab some food at a restaurant on the other side. After waiting for close to five minutes the inching four-lane road, packed bumper to grill, came to a halt, sending people scurrying, threading their way through the mess. Before I stepped off the sidewalk I looked up to see a Jeepney stopped a few paces in front of me, the words “Jesus Christ” painted in big faithful lettering above its windshield. That’s for sure, I thought and walked onward.

And now, as I read more into The Star article, I see that the Archbishop of Manila is also planning on attending the rally outside the Senate building today. He is bringing with him an Olympic-sized torch, which he calls “the Flame of Truth”, saying he will leave it outside the Senate in vigil “and that he would only extinguish the flame after Mr. Estrada steps down.” With the possibility of truck-top diving protesters and Olympic torch carrying bishops I think I’ll go see in person just how the Catholic Philippines deal with their impeachment process.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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