ARAKAN, North Cotabato—Eight years ago, he eluded anticommunist gunmen by hiding inside a small cabinet made of bamboo. On Monday, a lone assassin with a gun equipped with a silencer shot him eight times as he was getting into his pickup truck outside a convent.
In a broad daylight murder that stunned members of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as government officials, Italian missionary Fr. Fausto Tentorio—fondly known as “Father Pops”—was gunned down in a church compound in Arakan town while a flag-raising ceremony was going on nearby.
The gunman, wearing a crash helmet, casually walked to a motorcycle waiting near the Mother of Perpetual Help church compound and sped away with a companion, witnesses said.
Tentorio, 59, was declared dead at the hospital—the third Italian priest and the third member of the Vatican-run Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) to have been killed in Mindanao in the past 26 years.
He had been working as a missionary in Mindanao for more than three decades.
Sources at the PIME said Tentorio had been receiving death threats from some groups since two years ago, prompting him at one point, when he was out of the country, to postpone his return to the Philippines for a few months.
Malacañang, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and members of the Roman Catholic Church in the country condemned the murder. The Department of Justice also ordered an immediate investigation.
Police said among those they would interview were Tentorio’s colleagues and other possible witnesses, including teachers at a preschool within the church compound who were at a flag-raising ceremony when the attack took place.
Tentorio was about to board his pickup at around 7:30 a.m. to attend a meeting of the clergy in the capital city of Kidapawan, 30 kilometers away, when the gunman approached him and fired, according to Arakan Councilor Leonardo Reovoca, a former parish worker.
Tentorio suffered eight bullet wounds from a gun of still unknown caliber.
“I rushed to where he was and I saw him on the ground, blood oozing from his body,” Reovoca said.
The town councilor said he spoke with Tentorio on Sunday night and saw “nothing unusual” about him. “I cannot think of any reason why he should die this way,” Reovoca said in a radio interview.
Tentorio was a staunch antimining advocate since he started his parish work in Arakan, Reovoca said, adding that the Italian priest opposed “projects which are unsustainable and would harm the indigenous peoples.”
Fr. Giulio Mariani, a spokesperson for PIME’s regional diocese, said Tentorio arrived in the Philippines in 1978, a year after being ordained in Italy.
He said Tentorio had dedicated his life to helping local tribesmen and other disadvantaged people. “He gave them dignity and he was very pastorally active among the poor.”
Worked for justice
Cotabato Auxiliary Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo condemned Tentorio’s killing and said over Church-run Radio Veritas: “This again taints our international image.”
Bagaforo said priests from Kidapawan, where the communist New People’s Army (NPA) operated, said the killing could have been done either by those “underground” or by a rightist group.
“There are many rightist armed groups that are offended by the work for justice being done by the Church, especially Father Fausto, who is a director for tribal Filipinos. That was his advocacy,” Bagaforo said.
Two other PIME missionaries were killed while assigned in separate areas in Mindanao several decades ago.
Fr. Tulio Favali was brutally murdered by militiamen led by Norberto Manero in 1985 in North Cotabato, while Fr. Salvatore Carzedda was killed in Zamboanga in 1992.
Mariani said Tentorio, like other missionaries in Mindanao, had received death threats and his murder may have been linked to his efforts to help the tribespeople.
“Missionaries have always been the voice of the poor and, if you work on their behalf, sometimes you are bound to step on the toes of those who have other interests,” he said.
Founded in 1926, PIME missionaries work in 17 countries around the world, mainly in areas where there are conflicts and political turmoil, according to its website.
Mariani said there were at least 20 PIME priests in the Philippines, most of whom were in Mindanao.
As of 4 p.m. Monday, the Italian Embassy had not issued a statement. An embassy source said it was still awaiting the official police report.
Malacañang on Monday night said the Philippine National Police was now looking into the murder.
“We condemn the killing of Father Tentorio,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said.
He said President Benigno Aquino III was aware of the murder and had been told by Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo that he was now investigating the killing.
The DFA condemned the murder “in the strongest terms.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario offered his “sincerest condolences to (Tentorio’s) family and to his congregation” and added: “We call on the police to immediately bring the perpetrators of this dastardly act to justice.”
Memories of Favali
Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Loretta Ann Rosales said: “It’s terrible. It brings memories of Fr. Tulio Favali.”
Rosales asked PNP Director General Nicanor Bartolome to “give full attention” to solving the murder.
Rosales did not rule out the possibility that Tentorio’s mission to protect the indigenous peoples had put his life in danger.
“Advocates critical of big mining operations are gunned down with impunity while rebels demand higher taxes from these businesses at the risk of having their equipment burned. The PNP must step up its operations to protect innocent lives,” she added.
Tentorio had been in the Philippines for 33 years.
He was first assigned in the Archdiocese of Zamboanga in 1978. He was transferred to the Diocese of Kidapawan in 1980 and assigned as mission administrator in the parish of Columbio in the province of Sultan Kudarat. In 1985, he was transferred to the mission station of Arakan.
Killing the dream
North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Lala Taliño Mendoza vowed to work with other authorities to arrest the perpetrators of the killing.
In a statement, Bishop Romulo dela Cruz, D.D., of the Diocese of Kidapawan asked the parishioners of Arakan to remain calm and added: “May God touch the hearts of the perpetrator.”
Norma Capuyan, chairperson of the Apo Sandawa Lumadnong Panaghiusa sa Cotabato (ASLPC), said the assassin not only killed a priest but also the dreams of indigenous peoples who were scholars of the slain priest.
“He was the only hope of the indigenous peoples in Arakan. He was a father and a mentor to them. He sent them to high school and college,” Capuyan said.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a religious order, also denounced the killing.
Describing Tentorio as a missionary who selflessly worked to help the indigenous peoples and the poor farmers, Lauro de Guia, OMI provincial superior, said: “We are saddened that there are sectors in our society who are against our work to help bring about peace in Mindanao.”
In Zamboanga City, Claretian priest Angel Calvo said the killing of Tentorio “confirmed once more that working for justice and peace is risky and dangerous in some parts of the country.”
Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad said: “It is always painful when someone, a man of the cloth, is killed. We ask that his death be given justice and perpetrators immediately arrested and made accountable for the crime.”