Manila's Father Robert Reyes runs his message of protest through the streets

Fighter for Manila poor despairs for the Catholic Church that he claims supports big business

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 5:14am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 5:23pm


As the band of protesters approached a red stop light, a cry went up from the priest leading them: "Run! Run! Run!"

Father Robert Reyes jogged out into the clogged Manila street, raising his hand to the traffic — a small act of disobedience in a life punctuated with them. The group of about 40 followed him at a brisk pace, waving banners with slogans against the eviction of slum dwellers to make way for a shopping centre.

"Running has a Pied Piper affect," said Reyes, an activist priest for whom running, either with others or alone on multi-day ultra-marathons, is a preferred form of protest. "It draws people in."

Anywhere in the world you will see two kinds of churches ...
Father Robert Reyes

For more than 30 years, Reyes has been a constant critic of corruption in the Philippines and often the church itself, which he says has abandoned its obligation to help the poor and sided with those in power.

He has protested against the tobacco industry after his brother died of lung cancer, and blamed mining companies for environmental degradation. He has targeted conglomerates, especially shopping centre developers. He also opposes United States troops being in the country.

Reyes, 59, says Pope Francis' emphasis on social justice has given him motivation, but his activism has upset church leaders.

Reyes said his relationship with the church soured in 2005, when he led a hunger strike against then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo over allegations she rigged elections. Asked by a television crew why the bishops were not supporting him, he answered that they had "betrayed God and betrayed the people". "After that, it was downhill as far as working for the church was concerned," he said.

Reyes claims church leaders refused to give him a parish unless he stopped protesting. So last year, he tried a year of silence and monastic life and was ordained as a monk in the Franciscan order, which is more sympathetic to his activism.

Reyes unashamedly courts the media, saying it is vital in getting the message of social justice to a wider audience. Critics say he jumps from issue to issue, depending on whatever is getting attention.

Reyes' relationship with the church was shown recently when he led a prayer to bless apartment blocks for slum dwellers beside a fetid river.

"Anywhere in the world you will see two kinds of churches, the church that spends time with owners of big corporations, with politicians and the money, and a church that sides with the majority, with the poor," he said.

Father Francis Lucas, the president of the country's Catholic Media Network, said this characterisation was unfair.

"There are many bishops who are doing their jobs who put their lives at stake in helping the poor," he said.