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RH activist convicted of religious offense

Sandy Araneta (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - “Offending religious feelings” is a crime in this country, and a reproductive health (RH) activist may have to spend over a year behind bars after being convicted of the offense yesterday by a Manila court.

Carlos Celdran, a popular tourist guide and performance artist, is out on P5,000 bail while he is appealing his conviction for violating the little-known Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code.

He was found guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” of the criminal offense, and sentenced by Judge Juan Bermejo of the Manila Metropolitan Trial Court’s Branch 4 to a prison term ranging from two months and 21 days up to 13 months and 11 days.

Human Rights Watch expressed alarm over the decision, calling it “a setback for free speech in the Philippines” and saying the verdict should be overturned.

The Archdiocese of Manila withheld comment, saying it still had no copy of the court decision.

The complaint was filed by the rector of the Manila Cathedral, Msgr. Nestor Cerbo, a member of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Celdran, popular for his guided walking tours in Intramuros, had walked into an ecumenical service at the cathedral at around 3 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2010, in a black frock and hat similar to what Rizal wore.

As Celdran reached the altar, where someone was reading a passage from the Bible, he brought out a placard with the word “Damaso” written on it, flashing it before the assembly including the prelates seated in front.

Celdran walked around the church with the placard, without speaking. People apparently thought it was part of an act and ignored him, so he started shouting, and a commotion ensued. Minutes later, he was arrested by the police.

Among those at the event, which also marked the second anniversary of the “May They be One” campaign, were then Papal Nuncio Edward Joseph Adams, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales, several bishops, leaders of Christian denominations, a rabbi, and military and police officers.

Also in attendance were members of the Philippine Bible Society, which was launching the “Handwritten Bible” – a campaign of Catholic and Protestant groups to distribute five million copies of the Bible within five years.

“Damaso” refers to a corrupt, oppressive Spanish friar in the novels of Jose Rizal, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.”

In his defense, Celdran said the word “Damaso” in itself was not offensive since it had no religious significance.

He argued that he staged his protest before the start of the ecumenical service.

Celdran said he started shouting because the priests “purposely” ignored him.

The judge, however, said the incident was staged inside a cathedral, which is a place of religious worship. He said the prosecution was able to establish that the act was “notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

“The court submits that the act of the accused in displaying the placard with the word DAMASO written on it inside the Manila Cathedral, while an ecumenical service was going on, is offensive to the feelings of the faithful,” Bermejo declared in his nine-page decision.

“We are alarmed by the court’s decision,” Human Rights Watch said yesterday. “Nobody should be jailed for voicing out an opinion or position, especially on a subject that concerns the lives of millions of Filipino women and mothers.”

The group’s Asia researcher Carlos Conde said the decision was a blow to freedom in the Philippines, “which prides itself in being a democracy.”

“The government should ensure that pro-reproductive rights activists are not targeted using such archaic provisions of the Philippines’ Revised Penal Code,” Conde said.

“This case shows the potential for misuse and malicious prosecution and hence the need for urgent reform to this provision of the code,” Conde added. – With Evelyn Macairan

ARCHDIOCESE OF MANILA AS CELDRAN CARLOS CELDRAN CARLOS CONDE CATHOLIC AND PROTESTANT CELDRAN DAMASO HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH MANILA CATHEDRAL REVISED PENAL CODE
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