What you need to know
The Australian nun's story of state-led persecution at the hands of the president himself throws into sharp relief what it means to be a missionary and a Filipino.
Sister Patricia Fox, the Australian nun at the center of a firestorm over what it means to be a missionary, and indeed a Filipino, is fighting for her right to stay in the Philippines.
For the time being, she remains here in Manila attempting to overturn attempts by the Bureau of Immigration (BI) and President Rodrigo Duterte himself to have her deported on the grounds she conducted “partisan political activities.”
At the time of writing, her right to stay in the Philippines hangs by a thread after a massive upsurge of popular support led to a petition to make her a citizen, and a Department of Justice order to review her case ahead of an extended deadline of June 18.
The review comprises an assessment of the BI’s move to downgrade Fox’s missionary status to a "temporary" visa as a result of the government’s assertion that her activities exceeded the scope of what missionary work entails.
The News Lens joined Fox as she set out on what could well be a farewell tour of Pandi, Bulacan, one of the poorest communities in the country outside Metro Manila, and representative of those in which she has spent most of her near-30-year stay in the Philippines. During the drive, we stop so she can accept the tearful embraces of residents, spontaneous acts of compassion and solidarity that are testament to the impact of her work.
I’ll stop doing this when I can’t walk or they throw me out. — Sister Patricia Fox
Sitting in the back of the vehicle, I wonder about this magnetic, powerhouse of a woman; how this 71-year-old nun can attract such an incendiary combination of grassroots affection and state-sponsored ire.
A case for deportation?
The forces that swept Fox to the edge of expulsion are typical of those that swirl in the wake of any strongman ruler laying waste to the bonds of civil society.
Things came to a head last April, when Sister Pat received an unceremonious bang on the door of her congregation’s home in Manila. Six burly and abrasive BI men informed her that she was to come immediately to their offices for questioning. The nun accepted the offer she could not refuse.
Fox had just returned from an International Fact-Finding Solidarity Mission (IFFSM) to probe potential human rights abuses related to the state of martial law imposed on the island of Mindanao, which occupies the southern third of the Philippines, last year.
In February, President Duterte issued a one-year extension of the decree imposing military rule, nominally to stamp out the remnants of the pro-ISIS rebellion that had subsumed Marawi City, a city in northern Mindanao, in 2017.
The extension disregarded the appeals of human rights campaigners, who warned of ongoing human rights abuses occurring at the hands of the military under the auspices of countering terrorism and drugs trafficking.
As such, the IFFSM was forced to conduct its work within a maelstrom of competing political interests, and quickly found itself subject to harassment at the hands of the Filipino military, complete with reports of men on motorcycles ominously tailing the group's every move.
According to Sister Pat, she arrived in one town reported to have been the site of a string of human rights abuses only to be faced with signs and banners strung up by the military indicating that the mission was “Not Welcome.”
In the same area, soldiers had boarded their bus asking for the IDs of all of those on-board. The soldiers eventually backed down, but Sister Pat distinctly remembers them taking her picture. “I was the only Caucasian, so I knew I looked a bit out of place,” she says.
Back in Manila on the evening of April 16, and Fox is forced to wait for what she knew would be a politically influenced grilling at BI headquarters.
She had lived in the Philippines for 28 years, only flying back to Australia once a year for short periods. At 71 years old, she had a wealth of experience and knowledge of the Philippine condition and what to expect. Most of her time here has been spent among farmers and indigenous people in far flung areas, amongst Filipinos reeling from the worst this country has to offer: aggression from mining companies, abusive militarization and enduring feudal exploitation.
Eventually she was summoned to a small room and bluntly informed that the Philippine government considers her an “undesirable alien” for “joining rallies” and engaging in “political activities.” She later told reporters she was merely engaging in the socio-civic aspects of church work. In any case, none of those activities are even illegal.
Worse, the BI officer said her deportation would be swift and a plane was ready to take her back to Australia that same night.
But in a matter of hours, church officials, progressive groups, friends and a multitude of people whose lives the nun had touched rallied to her cause, in the process creating a sufficiently backlash to delay the authorities’ ability to act.
The crowd protested until the following day and Sister Pat was eventually released by the BI. However, this was only the beginning of what she would be made to endure.
As the dust began to settle, Duterte himself on April 18 admitted to personally ordering the probe against the nun for “disorderly conduct” in speaking out against his administration, and called for her to be banned from visiting the Philippines. He said the Philippines should “[Not] let her in because that nun has no shame,” arguing that siding with left-leaning groups in criticizing his government was a “violation of sovereignty.”
He also urged Fox to turn her attention to the Australian government’s own human rights violations and warned left-wing groups not to invite foreigners to the Philippines or risk them being arrested.
Despite her release from custody, the BI did not explicitly lift the deportation order, opting instead to gather more evidence. The weeks that followed saw various progressive groups and churches organize meetings, discussions and protests defending Fox’s body of work during her time in the Philippines.
Her life and principles became a topic of public discourse, revealing that in essence, Fox's missionary church work was synonymous with being a human rights advocate.
A storied life
During the Marcos Dictatorship in the 1980s, Fox worked with a Philippine-Australia Solidarity Group focused on human rights, campaigning through via telephone and in communities against the regime’s atrocities and on behalf of the large number of political detainees.
Growing up, Sister Pat lived with her working-class family in Melbourne. Her father worked in a factory and was eventually promoted to foreman. He was so sure the company cared for his wellbeing that being laid off due to retrenchment schemes came as an awful shock. “That was the only time I saw my father cry. He thought the company he worked for loved him,” she recalls. This among other experiences would serve to shape a lifelong commitment for social justice.
Fox arrived in the Philippines in 1990, volunteering for her congregation the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion and initially planning to remain for five years.
Insistent on living among the country’s poorest, she stayed in the rural areas of the northern Philippines in Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon for extended periods. During that time, she became accustomed to sleeping on the floor, eating with her hands and learning about the harsh conditions that accompany the most neglected sector of the archipelago.
“I really enjoyed living [there]. In those days you’d walk everywhere and end up staying in whichever house you’d finish up your work. People always had space, no matter how poor.” She remembers how her newfound friends in these areas would refer to her as the Hubad na Madre or “Naked Nun” since she would always appear without her coif or headpiece.
In Quezon Province, she dedicated much of her time to researching the mining companies affecting the local peasants and minorities. She says that she learned how mining laws in the country, no matter how helpful they were made out to look, were fundamentally contrary to community interests. Her research helped to inform the people of how these laws worked and how best to change them.
During her stay, she’d invariably come into contact with progressive organizations and peasant groups. These connections would help cement her reasons for staying, offering an immersive education in the struggle for land, justice, peace and genuine democracy. “Filipinos and Filipino activists in particular have a much sharper analysis of society. This was back when there were no cell phones or internet. Staying in isolated places with the oppressed gives you a better understanding of how the world works,” Fox explains.
These experiences pushed Fox to organize her church work around aiding the poor. During the course of participating in human rights fact-finding missions across the country, her party has been hounded by the military, and was even pounded by water cannons during dialogues with the agricultural agencies.
How did that feel? “You know how Filipinos are. Their spirits never go down. They started joking, saying ‘I forgot to bring my soap’ so I got a feel for [their] humor. It’s a way of coping, self-preservation. Rather than be terrified, we need to find ways to handle difficult situations.”
I love being with people, with the poor. That’s why I’m here and that’s where I’m happiest, not in front of a camera. They give me life. — Sister Patricia Fox
Fox found a home among ordinary folk fighting to survive systemic oppression. “I get energized when I’m out in communities, not when I’m at home. And acupuncture helps (laughs). I’ll stop doing this when I can’t walk or they throw me out.”
Not one for the media attention, the Australian nun has carved a niche where some would least expect it. “I’ve never been that public a person. I love being with people, with the poor. That’s why I’m here and that’s where I’m happiest, not in front of a camera. They give me life.”
One of the main contentions about her deportation is that the Duterte government does not accept Sister Pat's activities befit a foreign missionary.
“If I say that I want to live the gospel, well where was Jesus but among the people? Encouraging them, healing them and even confronting the authorities. Working with the poor is gospel work if you take it seriously,” she says.
Fox suggests her time in the Philippines has only strengthened this belief. Clearly, she and the regime have very different interpretations of "church work".
“If you listen to Pope Francis, you’ll know that the social teachings of the church are about being with the people and aiding them to transform their conditions and transform society so that people, regardless of religion, can have a decent life. It’s not about converting people and merely teaching doctrines.”
Now there is also a petition for citizenship, a move to legitimize her stay. She is visibly reluctant to address this matter head on. It is clear that it doesn’t really matter to her if there is a formal document sanctioning her status as a citizen.
It may be that debating whether she qualifies as a Filipino or not takes a back seat to what really matters -- genuinely teaching the gospel. In her eyes, citizen or not, it’s all the same to her just as long as she is able to stay.
“At this age and especially now, I’ve had to think more about my beliefs. I used to just do this instinctively, but now I have the opportunity to verbalize and articulate more often,” she reflects.
Fox’s supporters, including peasants who have worked with the nun, regularly call out Duterte and his government for not being even half the Filipino that Sister Pat is. Her efforts transcend traditional notions of nationhood and give added depth to the meaning of the Filipino condition at this point in history.
Sister Pat’s conundrum and the pleas to offer her citizenship raise serious questions about what it means to be a resident of this country. I ask Fox what she wants to do next besides face the charges brought against her.
She snaps back, “I want to learn more about organizing people. No change ever came from the top.”
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Editor: David Green