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Church bell thieves steal not just Christmas, but history

For the past 100 years, December dawns in Plaridel town, Bulacan were filled with the solemn peal of church bells, calling the faithful to pre-dawn masses that heralded the beginning of the Christmas season. In a little over a month’s time, churches across the country will begin these traditional Simbang Gabi masses that are held for nine days up until Christmas eve. But residents of two Plaridel barangays fear that Christmas this year will be silent, after the recent theft of their church bells. It was as if the thieves stole not simply the bells, but the sound of Christmas itself. According to an exclusive report by GMA News’ Jiggy Manicad aired over “24 Oras," still unidentified thieves stole the 100-year-old church bells of Nuestra Señora del Rosario in barangay Culianin a little past midnight on Monday.
The church bell in the adjacent barangay of Bulihan, in a chapel also named Sto. Rosario, was also stolen at around the same time. Residents say that the bells were stolen between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. on Monday. Lorenzon Mananghaya, a senior resident of the barangay, said that he heard a vehicle suspiciously driving to and fro the area, but had no idea that the bells were the target. "Kahit noong malayo, may naririnig na akong pabalik-balik diyan. Hindi ko namang akalaing iyan nga ang pinag-iisipan," Mananghaya said. (Even from afar, I could hear [a vehicle being driven] back and forth, but I had no idea that that [the bells] were the target.) He said the bells were an important part of the town’s life, serving to call the faithful to masses. “Tinutugtog ang kampanang iyan para mapaalahanan yung mga taong magsisimba," he said. (These church bells are rung to remind the faithful to attend mass.) Church bells are invariably part of the culture and history of our country, a former Spanish colony. Since Spanish times, church bells have served to warn townspeople of approaching calamity or pirate attack, or, on the contrary, to call people to celebrate the King’s victories and God’s blessings. Churches were established at the center of colonial towns, right beside the municipio (town hall) and the cuartel (barracks), as part of the Spanish colonial policy that used both the sword and the cross to bring most of the country under its control. But even after the Philippines won its independence from Spain, churches — and church bells — as well as the Catholic faith, stayed at the center of evolving Filipino culture. Serving as proof of the importance of church bells to our nation’s life, successive Philippine governments have long been appealing for the return of the Balangiga bells, the “24 Oras" report noted. The Balangiga bells are three church bells taken by the U.S. Army from the town church of Balangiga, now in Eastern Samar province, as war booty tied up with reprisals in reaction to an uprising by the townspeople against American occupation and counter-insurgency operations in 1901. One bell is found at the military base of the 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea, while two others are in a former base of the 11th Infantry Regiment at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In the mid 1990s, former President Fidel V. Ramos initiated the attempt to recover the bells, which the succeeding administrations pursued without success. The Philippine Senate has twice called for the return of the bells. (See: Pimentel urges stronger action to recover Balangiga bells, other art treasures) Despite all efforts to recover them, the bells remain under US government control — which, to many nationalists, is a continuing symbol of how our country’s freedom and a material artifact of its history were stolen in the stealth of night and at the point of a gun. As for the bells of Plaridel, residents are appealing to the thieves to return their own precious community legacy. "Sana mabagabag silang isauli, kasi po matagal na sa amin iyon. Mahalaga po sa amin yung kampanang iyon," another resident said. (We hope the thieves are driven by guilt to return the bells, as these have been ours for a long time. These bells are important to us.)—With Dani Molintas/JV