by Father Shay Cullen Profiles in Catholicism
It is now 20 years since the violent death of Father Rufus Halley on 28 August 2001. He was a missionary of the Society of Saint Columban, my classmate and friend. Born in Ireland, he was on his chosen assignment in the Prelature of Marawi, Mindanao, building bridges between conflicting communities of Muslims and Christians.
He was revered and respected like a prophet of peace by both communities. When we met in Manila, we would sit in the silence of the chapel in the Columban house in Manila. We shared our joys and sorrows, challenges and triumphs, fears and worries. We had received threats for having a stand to oppose evil-doers and support the right of the poor. That is the task of being a missionary. It is the path and life we have chosen. Like many others, Father Rufus had answered that call.
It is a long sacred tradition for men and women, priests and lay-people to go on mission. They leave families and friends for a life of dedication to justice in foreign lands. It was a commitment for life to bring the Gospel message of God's love and justice, human dignity and rights to the poor. Over the years, hundreds of Columban missionaries like Father Rufus lived and worked among the poor and oppressed and brought education and hope to countless people in the Philippines and countries all over the world.
Many stayed with the people through war and pestilence and gave hope and help. In a 72-year period of missionary work, 24 missionaries died violent deaths in serving the people of the Philippines. The poor respected them, admired them and were inspired and encouraged and affirmed by them. They choose to live for goodness and justice and help their neighbours as good Samaritans. Father Rufus was one of those who gave his life for his friends.
Several Columban missionaries suffered as did Jesus of Nazareth. They were reviled, betrayed, falsely charged by the evil-doers, imprisoned and some 24 were murdered. In the Philippines, missionaries of all nationalities, men and women, have given their lives not only in daily commitment to the poor but for their unshakable belief that love of neighbour, goodness and truth will overcome evil. Rufus Halley lived out that commitment, his spirit and memory lives on inspiring, encouraging and empowering people where he lived and worked and his spirit lives on with his Columban brothers and sisters.
Rufus was a man with a mission to be one in friendship with people of all faiths and be a bridge between communities in conflict and families with feuds. He was a bridge-builder and a peacemaker. He negotiated peace that healed years of gunfights and killing between two families and he brought them peace. He was director and a teacher in his school, Our Lady of Peace in Malabang, Marawi. He brought the students, both Muslims and Christians, together with a shared life experience of education where understanding and mutual respect were the values that would unite both Muslim and Christian communities together.
He fought for the rights of the Muslims who were oppressed and targeted by the Philippine military. He did not bless their weapons or celebrate mass for the local commander, which would be a mockery as they were shelling Muslim villages. Rufus stood against the violence and aggression directed at the Muslim Maranao people and Christian villages that were believed by the military to harbor rebels.
He was a well-loved and friendly personality among all the communities, Muslims and Christians alike. They respected and admired him, trusted him, loved him. He was a friend to everyone, hurt no-one, loved all and never said no when asked for help. He spoke their languages fluently, he blended with their customs and culture. At one time in 1989, Rufus shocked his community when he went to work as a shop-keeper in a Muslim store. He was learning the language and the customs but much more, he was being a humble friend to the Muslim community.
Rufus was one of them and was a positive influence in making inter-religious dialogue, peacemaking and uniting the communities. His parish school was a happily integrated school and his stand for the Muslim rights made him suspect with the military. This likely made him a prime target as he stood against the evils of war and violence and the shelling of villages. His school became a place of shelter and refuge for Muslims during military operations. Among some military, it was likely he was known as giving comfort and protection and a friend to the “enemy.”
Then one day, on the 28th of August 2001, he was riding his motorcycle to officiate at the wedding of a poor young couple in a village when he was accosted by a band of heavily armed men. According to a witness, they attempted to take him but he tried to escape and they shot him dead at point blank range. A man of peace and reconciliation made a victim of terrible violent crime. The gun violence he had stood against came to silence him. He died for his beliefs, his values, his solidarity with the oppressed.
Who were these men? At the time, 20 years ago, amid the tension of Philippine military and rebel Muslim conflict, it has not been proven that they were militias sent by the military to intimidate Father Rufus. Perhaps to frighten and silence him for his stand against the violence and injustice against his Muslim friends and community.
The military and political authorities said the men were kidnappers, a frequent crime in that area at that time. We may never know who or why they killed Rufus, but he died for what he believed and stood for: his love of goodness and truth, his stand against wrongdoing and violence, his life of virtue, goodness and service to the poor and the spiritual values he lived and shared.