Offending religious feelings

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I ENJOY listening to the lively religious debates at the Bacolod Plaza that have gone on before the advent of computers and the Internet. While the theology might be poor, the debaters make up for it with colorful language to defend or insult one another's religious beliefs.

Many of the no-holds barred anti-Catholic debaters however, had the good sense to confine their harangues in a public place. They have the decency to respect the Catholic faithful who go to Mass at the Bacolod Cathedral. But no such decent act for Cárlos Celdrán. Performance artist and walking tour guide at the Intramuros, Celdrán was arrested on September 30, 2010 for staging a protest during an ecumenical service at the Manila Cathedral on the Catholic Church's opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill.

Standing in front of the cathedral's altar and wearing a José Rizal suit, Celdrán shouted "Stop getting involved in politics" while holding a sign that said, "Damaso," referring to the doble-cara Spanish friar in Noli Me Tangere.


Later on, Celdrán apologized. "I really am sorry for the method but I hope you heard my message loud and clear. My message is unapologetic. But for interrupting the mass and ruining your day, sorry about that." He was sorry for the method, but he pleaded Not Guilty when he was arraigned.

Well, the Celdrán "method" turned out to be more than that. It wasn't a class act but a criminal act. Metropolitan Trial Court Juan Bermejo Jr., found Celdrán guilty of the crime of "offending religious feeling" beyond reasonable doubt under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code.

Article 133 punishes those who "in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful."

Celdrán said he would appeal against the court's decision, describing the authorities' use of the little-known and rarely used law as a threat to freedom of speech.

International rights monitor Human Rights Watch said it was alarmed by the use of an "archaic" law to prosecute Celdrán. "This is a setback for free speech in the Philippines, which prides itself on being a democracy," insisted Human Rights Watch Asia researcher Cárlos Conde on his email.

But if I may liberally quote my high school classmate Edward John Rodriguez aka "Nairobi Brad," on my Facebook post on the subject matter: "Some people forget that their rights END where the rights of others begin. In this case, his so-called freedom of expression ENDED where the rights of the Catholic faithful to a solemn, uninterrupted rite of the Holy Mass began."

I can only agree with Brad. If Judge Bermejo allowed Celdrán to walk, that would open a Pandora's Box of impunity where every nut who has a beef against Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, Hindus, and or even an atheist fellowship would see Celdrán's freedom as license to disrupt religious services.

Celdrán could have used Plaza Miranda to wail, rant, rave or ventilate against the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, right smack in front of the Quiapo Church, much like our anti-Catholic debaters do at dusk in front of the Bacolod Cathedral.

I might disagree with Celdrán's ideas, but I will defend Celdrán's rants and raves against the Church, so long as he does it in a public or private place, perhaps even inside a Catholic school. I believe in academic freedom so long as it sticks to issues and does not spill over from freedom of speech to slander and grave oral defamation.

While at that, I'm even surprised to read defenders of press freedom from media circles condemn Article 133 as an "archaic law." From where I sit as a human rights advocate, press freedom should not impinge on the freedom to worship (or not to worship), and vice versa. And Article 133 provides us the legal protection for the right to worship.

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Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on January 30, 2013.


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