Thursday, May 12, 2005

Open Letter for the return of the Balangiga Bells

An Open Letter of Petition
President George W. Bush, the United States Congress and the HelsinkiCommission
the return of our church bells to the Parish of Balangiga

On behalf of the Parish of Balangiga and the Diocese of Borongan, we would like to extend our deepest appreciation to the Wyoming Veterans’ Commission who recently voted 7 to 4 to return our church bells.

We are aware that a lot of deep thinking and thoughtful efforts have gone into this decision based on the research provided to all of us by Ms Jean Wall, the daughter of Private Gamlin, a soldier who saw action in Balangiga and the Balangiga Research Group. We also praise the Commission most effusively for their courage and generosity and for being the epitome of America’s Ambassadors of goodwill.

These bells are valued significantly not only for their place in history that binds both Filipinos and Americans, but also for the opportunity they present in fostering much stronger ties, enhancing, that is, a lasting goodwill between the two countries, the Philippines and the United States.

It is our fervent hope that these bells, when restored to the original settings in our Catholic parish, could ring again – this time as a spiritual symbol of the bond that will always exist between our two nations.

We all the more take heart from the legacy of His Holiness, the late Pope John Paul II, who taught the world to value as more important the bond of humanity that is commonly shared by peoples and nations regardless of differences in faith, politics and history. We are also deeply honored by the gracious act of the Holy See who endorsed to President Bush our letter of petition for the return of our church bells.

The Philippine-American War ended over a century ago and the time has come for the United States to follow her recent policy of returning religious artifacts.

We draw parallels between the Bells of Balangiga and the Schneerson Collection. The comparison we would like to make is the recent flurry of activity to return the Schneerson Collection, a compilation of rare religious books and manuscripts, formerly owned by the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch community that has been held for nearly a century by the former Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation.

The Helsinki Commission and its Chairman, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas held hearings on the return of these valuable religious texts. To show support for the return of these valuable collections, Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota wrote a letter asking for the support of the U.S. Senators. 100 U.S. Senators signed the letter, including Senator Thomas and Senator Enzi of Wyoming, calling for Russia to return the religious texts to the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch community. President Bush delivered this letter to President Putin in February 2005.

Presently, there are three church bells in the U.S. possession that were taken in 1901 as "war booty" during the Philippine-American War from our church in the Philippines. Two of the bells are "on display" at a military installation in Wyoming, a location closed to the public. The third bell is a traveling mascot for the 9th US Infantry Division in Korea. At this juncture, it is worth noting that on April 24, 1863, President Lincoln issued the General Order 100, Article 34, which prohibited members of the US Armed Forces from taking church properties.

We are encouraged by the decision of the Helsinki Commission, the 100 US Senators and President Bush and we hope that they will also apply the same efforts to return our church bells. In addition, we are further encouraged by the government of Italy for their honorable gesture by returning the Obelisk to Ethiopia after Italian soldiers brought them to Italy over 70 years ago.

It’s been over a century since our church bells and the Jewish texts were taken. If the United States government leads by example and returns the church bells to our parish, perhaps President Putin may follow suit and return the Schneerson Collection to the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch community.

We will always be grateful for the courageous decision of the Wyoming Veterans’ Commission. Needless to say, we are very much encouraged, and we look forward to a continued global support in our effort to retrieve our church bells to our Parish in Balangiga.

So we pray.

(Sgd.)+Leonardo Y. Medroso, DD
Bishop of the Diocese of Borongan

(Sgd.) Rev. Fr. Saturnino Obzunar
Balangiga Parish Priest