‘No to (new) Ivory’
Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma yesterday said the Catholic church supports the ban on ivory and would cooperate with a government inquiry into the alleged role of Msgr. Cristobal
Garcia in the illegal trade.
At the same time, he criticized the National Geographic magazine for its October cover story “Ivory Worship”.
Palma said its account, which quoted revelations of Msgr. Garcia, should be verified “considering that the article smacks of bias against religious practices” and may have exaggerated the priest’s statements.
In a press conference at his Cebu city residence, Palma said he would order an inventory of ivory icons in the collection of Msgr. Garcia to determine if these were acquired before the global ban was imposed in the 1990s.
He also announced that the Cebu priest was under investigation by the Vatican for a past case of child abuse. (See story on page 2.)
“The Church does not condone ivory smuggling or other illegal activities, although in the past, ivory was one of the materials used in the adornment of liturgical worship,” Palma said in a prepared statement.
“While these ivory artifacts crafted long before the ban are considered the cultural heritage of the Church, in no way does the Church encourage the use of ivory for new implements,” Palma said.
Asked later in open forum about Garcia’s collection of icons of various materials kept in the Shrine of the Nazarene in Talisay City, the archbishop said as far as he knows, these were mostly antiques owned by Garcia’s family who are well to do.
“Let it be made clear that the Church supports the ban on ivory” said Palma in his opening statement. He cited Presidential Decree 1612 of 1970 and and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Speices of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1990.
He said the ivory ban is in line with the church’s “doctrine on stewardship of creation.”
Palma also noted that he was a co-signatory of the “Free Mali,” movement calling for the transfer of the lone elephant in captivity in the Manila Zoo to an animal sanctuary in Thailand.
The archbishop appealed that Garcia be given a “fair and just hearing” in the controversy linking him to the illegal trade of ivory.
“The account given by National Geographic Magazine needs to be assessed as to its veracity, considering that the article smacks of bias against religious practices,” he said in his prepared statement.
Palma said there was a need to clarify the author’s claims about the way Filipinos view religious icons.
“In no way does the Church teach that these icons are in fact God Himself or the saints themselves. Any encouragement promoting such idolatry is contrary to Church belief and must be purified,” said the archbishop.
Palma explained that the National Geographic writer Bryan Christy was warmly received by several people when he visited Cebu for interviews, and that they were shocked to see what he had written later.
“They felt betrayed,” said the prelate.
“There were some people who treated him (Christy) so well; who gave him Filipino hospitality, thinking that he was writing about the devotion to the Sto. Niño. He came (to Cebu), according to him, to report about the devotion to the Sto. Niño and he came out with ‘Ivory Worship’ which, in so many ways I would say, is a poor testimony to our devotion,” Palma said.
Asked if the Cebu Archdiocese would write the magazine to complain, Palma said he didn’t think it was needed since other people are doing this already.
He said the archdiocese “will discern” whether to take action against the writer.
Msgr. Garcia, he said, is “sick” and confined in a hospital in Makati but that he stays in touch with the priest.
According to the prelate, he hasn’t confronted Garcia yet about the National Geographic article because of Garcia’s poor health, but that the priest’s brothers had come to see him to relay that Garcia’s statements in the magazine were “misconstrued and exaggerated.”
An inquiry will have to wait until Garcia is in better health, said the prelate.
Asked what advice to give Catholic faithful who own icons of ivory, Palma said the committee on church heritage of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philipines, headed by Cebu Bishop Julito Cortes, “have met in Manila and made guidelines.”
“They will come out with rules. It is too soon to tackle all the implications (of the controversy).”
But Palma stressed that as a rule, the church discourages the use of ivory in response to the “signs of the times”, where loss of wildlife at risk of becoming extinct, like the elephants of Africa, require people to be more responsbile.
Palma said the National Geographic investigative article has a “very valid point” in protecting the lives of elephants.
“We don’t kill for the sake of all of these kinds of worship. Notice that the Holy Father has come out, time and time again, about how precious and tangible life is . And if we realize that all life is interrelated, animal and human life, we would have more respect for life.”
Msgr. Achilles Dakay, Cebu Archdiocese media liaison officer, said if the ivory items of Garcia are illegal, these would have to be surrendered to the authorities.
“We will surrender him (Garcia) also. Why not? We should stand up for what is right even if we stand alone,” said Dakay.
But Dakay said he doubted the National Geographic’s claim that Msgr. Garcia gave tips to the writer how to smuggle ivory pieces to the United States.
“He buys ivory icons available in Manila. He has no direct source to smuggling. That is why we have to determine if he has icons that are acquired
before the ivory ban or not,” Dakay said.
Dakay also noted that the magazine was inaccurate in reporting that the water used in the “Hubo” or the ritual changing of clothes of the Sto. Nino was being “sold”.
The ivory scandal comes at a time when the Cebu Archdiocese is busy preparing for the Oct. 21 canonization of Visayan martyr Pedro Calungsod.
“To me, it’s a moment of purification, but I’m a hopeful person. Something like this to me will always bear good fruits, in terms of people being strengthened. There will always be trials and yet like the saints, we are not alone. The grace of God will help us overcome trials,” said Archbishop Palma.
“On a personal note, it will not lessen devotion to the Sto. Niño,” Palma added.
“I like to imagine, that perhaps more people will come to the Sto. Niño ( fiesta) next year.”
DENR starts probe
Agents of the Environmental Wildlife and Investigation Division in Manila are set to arrive in Cebu today to start an investigation of ivory collections in Cebu.
Edward Villarta, NBI director for Central Visayas, said he received a letter from the DENR seeking their assistance.
This would be the first time that such an investigation would be conducted in Cebu, he added.
He said they will not only look into Msgr. Cris Garcia’s icon collection but other ivory items of religious images, mahjong, and piano keys, among others.
Ariel Rica, DENR chief of biodiversity and wildlife section, went to the Cebu Archbishop’s Palace yesterday to inform officials before proceeding to the NBI 7 to seek their assistance. INQUIRER and Eileen G. Mangubat
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