Philippines: President Duarte Expels An Australian Missionary Sister

The Philippines government has ordered an Australian Catholic sister to leave the country within 30 days after the immigration bureau revoked her missionary visa for joining protest rallies, an immigration official says.

The Philippines’ immigration bureau has revoked the missionary visa of Australian sister Patricia Fox over her alleged involvement in partisan political activities. “A statement released by the bureau on the 25th April said the 71-year-old nun, who was arrested on the 16th April and detained overnight, had been ordered to leave the country. She was found to have engaged in activities not allowed under the terms and conditions of her visa”, said Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente.

The immigration official said the visa granted to Sister Fox gives her the “privilege to engage in missionary work and not in political activities”. A one-page immigration document dated the 23rd April ordered the forfeiture of the nun’s missionary visa that was due to expire on the 5th September. Sister Fox’s alien certificate of registration is also deactivated. “We direct [Sister] Fox to leave the Philippines within 30 days from receipt of this order”, read the immigration order.

President Duarte admitted that he personally ordered an investigation into the activities of Sister Patricia Anne Fox.

Sister Patricia Fox arrived in the Philippines in 1990. For five years, Sr Patricia lived in Aurora province, south of Manila, to work with the justice and peace ministry of Infanta Prelature. “They invited me because they knew I am a lawyer. We did a lot of research on mining and various land issues”, said the sister. The results of Sister Pat’s research were used to educate farmers on their rights to land and the impact of destructive extraction on agriculture and the environment. Sister Patricia later became coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines where she was exposed to the bigger struggle for land reform.

In 2015, the sister joined the Union of Agricultural Workers as its spiritual director. She travelled to far-flung areas to listen to the stories of farmers. She also administers the congregation’s organic farming program that provides technical assistance to peasants.

In a statement Sister Mary Badic, superior-general of the Sisters of Sion congregation said Sister Patricia’s work as a missionary explains why she is seen among the poor. Philippine immigration authorities used a picture of the nun visiting a detained farmer as evidence supposedly to prove her involvement in political activities.

“Following the mandate of the church mission of proclaiming the Good News to the poor, she has since given her life as a religious to the service of the poor and those in need on the peripheries of society”, read the statement from the congregation’s superior-general. Despite her age, Sister Pat never thought of retiring from her work, although she is forcing herself to slow down. Her responsibilities as provincial superior of the congregation in the Philippines also obliges her to do office-based work. “A church worker never retires”, she said, “as long as there is air and you’re breathing”.

In response to the visa revocation decision, church and human rights activists have strongly protested in what they described as “an act of religious persecution”. Good Shepherd Sister Elenita Belardo, national coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, said the Philippine government seems not to understand what it is to be a missionary. “We are followers of Christ and the mission of Christ is our mission, that is to bring the Good News to the poor, free prisoners, defend the voiceless, and fight injustice”, said Sister Belardo.

Father Benjamin Alforgue of the ecumenical group Promotion of Church Peoples’ Response appealed to authorities to give Sister Fox a chance to defend herself and answer the charges against her. “No revocation of her visa should take place before the bureau has heard the nun’s explanation and presented her own side of the story”, said the priest.

Bishop Deogracias Iniguez of the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum called on the faithful to press the government to reverse the immigration bureau’s decision. “It is high time for all Christians with a heart for the poor to come out and stand for what is just and right”, said the prelate.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said the decision to revoke Sister Fox’s visa was “very sad”. “All the good [Sister Fox] has done to help the underprivileged is glossed over and not even appreciated while the insecurity of the present government is given weight”, he said.

For her part, Sister Patricia finds it “funny and a bit annoying” that she was accused of involving herself in politics when she visited farmers in Mindanao recently. “I was there not to investigate something but to reach out to those who are imprisoned. What do you think a spiritual adviser does?” she said.

“The government should try to understand the nature of my work as a religious missionary. I talk to people regardless of their faith, political belief, or affiliation” Sister Pat said. “I am not used to being in the spotlight. I am a silent worker. I don’t want too much attention. I think I don’t deserve this”, she said. “But I am not tired” she said, adding that the people who turned up to support her, especially the farmers, the priests and the sisters, keep her going. When asked if she was scared, she said she was “scared of being deported or denied entry” back into the country. “If I will die, I should die in the Philippines”, she declared. “I can’t die and be buried in Australia while my heart is left here”.