Philippines hails US move to return historic church bells

Bells were taken as retribution for 1901 uprising in Balangiga Samar, which left 48 Americans dead

Manila: The presidential palace welcomed plans by the United States to return church bells that are over a century old and taken in 1901 as spoils of war by American soldiers.

The Balangiga Bells had become a symbol of American colonial conquest of the Philippines, marking a dark chapter between the two countries’ relations. “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,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement on Sunday.

On Saturday, Trude Raizen, deputy press attaché at US Embassy in Manila, informed that the US is planning to push through with the return of bells but did not say when it would happen. “Secretary of Defence (Jim) Mattis has notified Congress that the department intends to return the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines,” the presidential communications group quoted Raizen as saying.

“No specific date has been identified for the return of the bells. We’ve received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honour they deserve,” Raizen added.

The Presidential Communications and Operations Office (PCOO) said the expected return comes after US President Donald Trump signed the US National Defence Authorisation Act of 2018 on December 12, 2017, giving the US Defence Secretary the chief authority to decide on the return of the bells. “As the Balangigaons (residents of Balangiga Samar) celebrated the Feast Day of San Lorenzo de Martir — the town’s patron saint — on August 10, 2018, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis signed the papers favouring the return of the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines,” the PCOO said.

In July 26, 2017 President Rodrigo Duterte issued a public demand to the US to return the Church Bells. Senator Aquilino Pimentel III said: “The Bells of Balangiga are important to us because they are a part of our history.” The three Balangiga Bells were taken by American troops as war booty in 1901, after an uprising by locals left 48 American officers and men dead.

In retribution for the uprising, American General Jacob Smith ordered his men to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness.” In Balangiga and other parts of the province, all males above the age of 10 were shot to death.

One of the bells is with the 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Red Cloud based in South Korea, while two others are at a former base of the 11th Infantry Regiment at F.E. Warren airbase in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Efforts to return the bells to the Philippines had been ongoing since 1957, when Jesuit historian Fr. Horacio de la Costa requested the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California to repatriate the bells, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

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