Wed, Dec 12, 2018 - Page 5 News List

US returns church bells to Philippines

WAR TROPHIES:The bells are revered as symbols of national pride and their arrival on a military transport plane and the handover were shown live on national TV


Residents of Balangiga pose next to one of the Bells of Balangiga after its arrival at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay, Philippines, yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Three church bells seized by US troops as war trophies more than a century ago were yesterday returned to the Philippines in a move long demanded by leaders in Manila, including the current president, who is critical of Washington and has moved closer to China.

US Department of Defense officials and the US ambassador handed back the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippine defense chief in a solemn ceremony at an air force base in the capital, closing a dark episode in the treaty allies’ love-hate relationship.

“It is my great honor to be here at this closing of a painful chapter in our history,” US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said.

“Our relationship has withstood the tests of history and flourishes today,” he said.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said the handover is an important gesture of friendship and is in the US national security interest.

Some US veterans and officials had opposed the return of the bells, calling them memorials to the nation’s war dead.

The bells are revered as symbols of national pride in the Philippines and their arrival on a US military transport plane and the handover ceremony were shown live on national TV.

Two of the bells had been displayed for decades at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The third was with the US Army in South Korea.

After being colonized by Spain for more than three centuries, the Philippines became a US territory in 1898 in a new colonial era that began with the outbreak of the Philippine-American War.

US troops took the bells from a Catholic church following an attack by machete-wielding villagers, who killed 48 US troops in the town of Balangiga on central Samar island in 1901 in one of the US Army’s worst single-battle losses of that era.

One of the bells had been sounded to signal the attack by the villagers, some of whom were disguised as women who hid in the church near a US garrison, historian Rolando Borrinaga said.

The US troops retaliated, reportedly killing thousands of villagers above the age of 10 and US General Jacob Smith ordered Samar to be turned into a “howling wilderness,” Borrinaga said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has had an antagonistic attitude toward the US, and has revitalized ties with China and Russia, asked Washington in his state of the nation address last year to “return them to us, this is painful for us.”

“Give us back those Balangiga bells... They are part of our national heritage,” Duterte said in the speech, attended by the US ambassador and other diplomats.

“It’s time for healing, it is time for closure, it is time to look ahead as two nations should with a shared history as allies,” Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said after the resolution of the issue.

Duterte has referred to violence by Americans in Balangiga and on southern Jolo island in the early 1900s in public criticism of the US government after it raised concerns about his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs in which thousands have died.

A breakthrough on the issue of the bells came with an amendment to a US law banning the return of war relics and memorials to foreign nations.

That allowed the homecoming of the Balanggiga bells, said Lorenzana, who saw the bells last year in Wyoming, where he was notified by Mattis of Washington’s decision.

Philippine officials led by Duterte are to turn over the bells on Saturday to officials and the church in Balangiga, a small coastal town where villagers applauded while watching troops on TV screens pry open the wooden crates containing the bells.

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