It is now 20 years since the violent death of Father Rufus Halley on 28th 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.
When we met in Manila we would sit in the silence of the chapel in the Columban house. 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 laypeople to go on mission. They leave families and friends for a life of dedication to justice in foreign lands. It is 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 have 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 these people through war and pestilence and gave them hope and help. In a 72-year period of missionary work, 24 missionaries have died violent deaths serving the people of the Philippines. The poor respected and admired them. They were inspired, 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 and falsely charged by the evildoers 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.
Well-loved and friendly among all the communities, Muslims and Christians alike, Rufus was respected and admired. They trusted and loved him. He was a friend to everyone, he hurt no-one, he 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 than that, he was being a humble friend to the Muslim community.
Rufus fought for the rights of 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 harbour rebels.
Rufus was director and a teacher in his school, Our Lady of Peace in Malabang, Marawi. He brought the students, both Muslim and Christian, together with a shared life experience of education. 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”.
On the 28th August 2001 Rufus was riding his motorcycle to officiate at the wedding of a poor young couple in a local 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 and his solidarity with the oppressed.
Who were these men? 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.
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.