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Samar lawmakers hail US return of Balangiga bells

Two lawmakers from Samar on Sunday cheered the decision of the US Department of Defense to return to the Philippines church bells seized by US troops as trophies in 1901 during the Filipino-American War, giving way to Manila after years of diplomatic pressure.

Malacañang also welcomed the decision of the US government to return the bells of Balangiga after 117 years.

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Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the Palace had been informed of the US intention to return the bells.

“We welcome this development as we look forward to continue working with the US government in paving the way for the return of the bells to the Philippines,” he said.

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No date yet for return

On Saturday, the US Embassy in Manila said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had notified the US Congress that the Pentagon planned to return the bells of Balangiga to the Philippines.

No specific date has been set for the return of the bells, the embassy’s deputy press attaché, Trude Raizen, said in a statement.

“We’ve received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve,” Raizen said.

Elated at the news, Samar Rep. Ben Evardone on Sunday said the return of the bells would remove the remaining irritants in US-Philippine relations dating back to the Filipino-American War.

“[The bells] rightfully belong to us as a symbol of freedom and justice. I hope they will be returned to us in time for the 117th anniversary of the Balangiga Encounter Day on Sept. 28,” Evardone said.

Samar Rep. Raul Daza, a relative of a Filipino guerrilla who led the attack on the US garrison in Balangiga, said the return of the bells would “rectify a grievous historical wrong inflicted by the Americans not only on the Samareños but on the Filipino nation [as well].”

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“The bells are not merely religious relics. They are an eloquent symbol of the courage and patriotism of the Filipinos,” Daza said.

Balangiga uprising

On Sept. 28, 1901, Filipino guerrillas rang the bells of the church at Balangiga as signal for an attack on US troops occupying the town.

The assault left 48 US soldiers dead and drew a horrific counterattack from the American forces, who, on orders from Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith, killed all Balangiga residents aged over 10, turning the town into a “howling wilderness.”

After the massacre, the US troops seized the church bells as war booty.

Two of the three bells are on display at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as part of a memorial to the US troops killed in Balangiga.

Inscribed 1863 and 1889, each bell bears an emblem of the Franciscan order.

The third bell is with the 9th Infantry Regiment of the US Army at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea as part of a traveling museum.

The troops killed in Balangiga were from Company C of the 9th Infantry Regiment.

Diplomatic pressure

Despite decades of close ties between the two countries and a tight military alliance, the US refusal to return the bells has long been a bone of contention, raised strongly by several Philippine leaders, most recently by President Duterte.

In a speech to a joint session of Congress in 2017, Mr. Duterte described the bells of Balangiga as part of the country’s national heritage and asked the United States to return them.

“[Those bells] are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Please return them,” Mr. Duterte said.

The return of the bells requires approval of the US Congress.

On Friday night, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters about efforts to recover the bells.

“I was in Washington last month and we hurdled the obstacle in [the US] Congress. It’s now with the US state department and [the defense department]. According to the people attending to the matter, both Filipino-Americans and Americans, it’s running smoothly,” Cayetano said.

Historian Rolando Borrinaga, who has written extensively on the Balangiga uprising, cited the role of US veterans in the effort to return the bells to the Philippines.

“The final push was brought about by the concerted efforts of US veterans working for goodwill and understanding between [the two] countries,” said Borrinaga, secretary to the National Committee on Historical Research of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Borrinaga said the decision to return the bells was made in the United States on Friday, Aug. 10, the Feast of St. Lawrence, patron saint of Balangiga. —With a report from the wires

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TAGS: Balangiga bells, Ben Evardone, Filipino-American war, Harry Roque, Jim Mattis, Philippine-American War, Raul Daza, US-Philippine relations
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