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EDITORIAL - To kill a priest

Who murders a priest, and why? The Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped and executed several Catholic priests, pulling out the toenails and beating Father Roel Gallardo before shooting him dead in Basilan in 2000. But the Abu Sayyaf is not known to operate in Jaen, Nueva Ecija, where gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on retired parish priest Marcelito Paez as he was driving his van along the Jaen-Zaragoza Road on Monday night.

As of yesterday, a police task force created to focus on the case had made no arrests. But militant groups quickly voiced suspicions that the priest known as Father Tito, 72, was killed because of his involvement in campaigns to promote human rights.

Paez, a coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, retired from the priesthood in 2015. He reportedly worked for the release on bail of suspected New People’s Army member Rommel Tucay from the provincial jail in Cabanatuan City. Tucay, said to be an organizer of the militant Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson, was arrested in Carranglan, Nueva Ecija on charges of illegal possession of guns and explosives.

Only the arrest of Paez’s killers will show whether there is basis for the suspicions of the militant groups. Paez was gunned down on the eve of the announcement that President Duterte had officially classified the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing the NPA as terrorist groups.

For several decades, other individuals perceived to be communist members or sympathizers have been murdered or snatched, never to be heard from again. While the military has been linked to many of the cases, such as the disappearance of University of the Philippines coeds Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno in 2006, government security forces have also pointed to cases in which the rebels themselves killed each other in periodic internal purges.

Again, such claims are best verified through the arrest of killers and the solution of murders and enforced disappearances. Giving justice to Fr. Tito Paez would be an encouraging step toward the truth.

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