Filipino Cultural Activist Carlos Celdran Faces Imprisonment
By Marlyne Sahakian
The Supreme Court of the Philippines has ruled artist and cultural activist Carlos Celdran guilty of “offending religious feelings,” citing that the crime is punishable under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, which stipulates that performing “acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful” in places devoted to religious worship or during religious ceremonies can result in imprisonment. Celdran received the ruling on August 1. The Supreme Court thus upholds the Metropolitan Trial Court of Manila’s decision of January 2013.
The alleged offense took place on September 30, 2010, when Celdran entered the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros during a church assembly, bearing a sign that read “Damaso”—the name of a fictional friar from a novel written by national hero José Rizal, which exposes the abuses of the Catholic Church in 19th century Philippines. Celdran, an advocate of the Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines, staged this performance in order to contest the involvement of the church in state affairs; the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines was staunchly opposed to the Bill, which later passed in 2012 after much public debate. Celdran currently faces up to one year and one month behind bars.
The Supreme Court’s ruling evidences the deeply ingrained influence of the church in Filipino law, as in Spanish colonial times, despite president Rodrigo Duterte’s erratic speeches against the agency of the church in state affairs. Further, it raises the issue of freedom of speech. In a statement to ArtAsiaPacific, Celdran argues: “Article 133 of the current Revised Penal Code of the Philippines is an archaic and draconian law that threatens not only me but everyone who believes in freedom of speech and expression.” The question is not whether Celdran broke the law with his performance, but whether Article 133 is unconstitutional—as then-Solicitor General Florin Hilbay put forward in his defense of Celdran in 2016—in its suggestion that religious sentiments should be prioritized above the basic right to freedom.
Upon hearing the ruling, artists including Benedicto Cabrera, Ringo Bunoan, the KoloWn collective, Nicolas Combarro, and Wawi Navarozza, among others, banded together to advocate for the removal of Article 133 from the Revised Penal Code. The online petition continues to grow. At the time of this article’s publication, it includes the names of 250 artists. A rally organized by the Filipino Freethinkers group will also take place on August 15 at the Supreme Court, while Celdran files a motion for reconsideration.
Marlyne Sahakian is the Philippines desk editor of ArtAsiaPacific.
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