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Imagine a vicar, bored and tired of giving sermons to old devout women of his parish. His mind is somewhere else. Imagine this same priest all day long, walking around, riding his bike on the dirty and destroyed roads of the Buenos Aires’ slums; trying to avoid all the holes, puddles of water… surrounded sometimes by exchanges of gunfire. In Argentina, slum priests (“curas villeros”) became famous when the Vatican elected Jorge Bergoglio, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, as Pope Francis, in February 2013. If Francis is now considered as a “popular” Pope (or Pope “of the poor”), it is thanks to one of the “curas villeros”, Father “Pepe”, who had received Bergoglio in “his” slum to show him the plight of the people in his overwhelmingly impoverished parish.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio himself had always been a fervent partisan of (popular) Liberation theology and tolerated and engaged with the popular devotional practices of these unprivileged populations, mostly composed of immigrants from nearby Bolivia or Paraguay. Popular religiosity is the only leitmotiv of these activist priests. They are often in conflict with the Vatican, who has labeled them as “heretics,” because of their having baptized children of single mothers and for having tolerated popular devotional practices towards unrecognized saints. They don’t hesitate to stray from Catholics dogma, which they sometimes find ignores the issues facing the people in their parishes. At the same time, “slum priests” also stay away from local politics.
“Here (in the “villas”), there are no right or left-wing positions. All the matter is to get water, access to electricity, and to improve daily life,” insists Father Gustavo Carrara.
All around the Argentinean capital and its huge suburbs, these “slum priests” try to help the city’s most impoverished people, whose numbers have increased between 2010 to 2014 with the population of these “villas” passing from 163,000 to 275,000 in Buenos Aires alone, according to the local secretary for housing. Far away from the sumptuous Cathedral of the “Plaza de Mayo” in Buenos Aires, slum priests are practicing in precarious parishes, built by themselves with the unconditional help of neighbours. Among the religiously devout social activists offering their help to these vicars of the poor are psychologists, social workers and spokespeople for the marginalized. Suspicious towards corrupt policemen and the shady politicians, they fight alongside these priests to save the youth from the dangers of the street, from drugs, and to help struggling mothers.
Les pretres des pauvres: entre la révolution et l'héresie
Les prêtres tiers-mondistes en Argentine, entre révolution sociale et hérésie ? Imaginez un curé fatigué de donner des sermons aux vieilles dévotes de sa paroisse. Celles-ci l’ennuient, à la longue, car il a mieux à faire. Imaginez ce curé passant ses journées à déambuler en vélo dans les rues en terres des bidonvilles, en évitant les trous, les flaques d’eau… et les fusillades ! En Argentine, les curés tiers-mondistes (“curas villeros”) sont devenus célèbres lors de l’élection de l’ancien archevêque de Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, devenu le Pape François en février 2013. Si François est aujourd’hui présenté comme le Pape “du peuple” (ou “des pauvres”), c’est essentiellement grâce à l’un de ces “curas villeros”, le Père “Pepe”, qui le recevait dans “son” bidonville, afin de l’alerter des problèmes du peuple.
Aux quatre coins de la capitale argentine, ainsi que dans son immense périphérie, ils viennent en aide aux plus démunis, dont le nombre ne cesse d’augmenter (de 2010 à 2014, la population des “villas” est passée de 163.000 à 275.000 personnes dans la seule ville de Buenos Aires, selon le Secrétariat de l’habitat, et dont les problématiques sont trop souvent oubliées des pouvoirs publics. Bien loin de la Cathédrale fastueuse de la place de Mai de Buenos Aires, les curés villeros exercent dans des paroisses précaires, qu’ils ont souvent dû construire eux-mêmes, avec l’aide inconditionnelle des riverains. Ces sacerdotes hors du commun, vêtus aussi humblement que leurs fidèles, sont un mélange d’assistants sociaux, de psychologues et de porte-paroles des pauvres. Méfiants vis-à-vis des policiers corrompus, des représentants politiques véreux, ils repêchent les jeunes de la rue et de la drogue, assistent les mères désemparées, qui ne savent plus quoi faire de la ribambelle d’enfants arrivés trop tôt…
Ces hommes de terrain ont comme seul mot d’ordre la religiosité populaire. Ils se sont parfois attirés les foudres du Vatican, qui les considère comme des “hérétiques”, pour avoir notamment baptisé des enfants de mères célibataires et accepté la dévotion des villeros pour des saints et des vierges non-reconnus par l’Église. Ils n’hésitent pas à prendre certaines libertés par rapport au dogme catholique et aux concepts de l’Eglise, parfois complètement déconnectée de la réalité sociale, même s’ils se défendent d’appartenir à quelconque mouvement de gauche ou du péronisme.
« Ici (dans les villas), il n’y a pas de droite ni de gauche : tout ce qui importe, c’est d’avoir de l’eau, de l’électricité et de vivre mieux », insiste ainsi le Père Gustavo Carrara.
Jorge Bergoglio lui-même a toujours été un fervent défenseur de la Théologie du Peuple, refusant de condamner leur vision de la foi et s’appuyant sur les croyances populaires de cette population déshéritée, qui compte un grand nombre d’immigrants (Boliviens et Paraguayens).
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A virgin watches over the community during the years-end festival. Behind, a sign reads "CLUB ATLETICO MADRE DEL PUEBLO, EL CLUB DE MI BARRIO," the association that organizes sports and cultural activity in the neighbourhood.
Pendant la fête de fin d'année à la villa, une vierge veille sur le voisinage.
En fond: "CLUB ATLETICO MADRE DEL PUEBLO, EL CLUB DE MI BARRIO" ("le club de mon quatier"), l'association géré par les habitants et les curés, qui organisent de multiples activités culturelles et sportives
In the "First of November 2014" slum, also called "Bajo Flores," a festival is organized by the parish and the community.
Dans la villa 1-11-14, dite du « Bajo Flores », une fête organisée conjointement par la paroisse et les habitants.
Father Gustavo is a key personality in the city, promoting social cohesion and the community's visibility.
Le Père Gustavo est un personnage-clé de la villa, clé de voûte du vivre ensemble et de la visibilité du quartier.
Pope Francis waves from a mural adorning the wall of the San Lorenzo football club's stadium.
Le Pape François (Papa Francisco) vous salue, depuis les murs du stade du club de football San Lorenzo, "son" club.
The entrance to the "First of November 2014" slum, seen from the San Lorenzo stadium.
L'une des entrées de la villa 1-11-14, vue depuis le stade de San Lorenzo.
A banner reading "Papa de los villeros" ("The Pope of the slumdwellers" in Spanish) adorns the neighborhood square during a public gathering.
En fond: "papa de los villeros" ("le pape des (habitants de) bidonvilles", en espagnol)
The largest community of the smallest Christian minority in Turkey has felt neglected for decades and is now facing an uncertain future. The recent visit of Pope Francis to Turkey reinforced anxieties within Izmir's catholic community as he was the first Pope not to visit the tiny but important diocese. Although he had announced his wish to visit the House of Mary in Ephesus, like his predecessors, security problems at the remote shrine made it impossible. Catholics in Izmir are well aware of security problems, but nonetheless they bitterly feel that they are the collateral victims of sectarian tensions in the region.
The history of Christianity in Turkey is almost as old as the Church itself. St. Paul was a native of Anatolia and preached in Ephesus and Miletus. Jesus’ favorite apostle, St. John, the Evangelist who wrote the Apocalypse, is said to have moved to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary. The Apostle’s tomb is near the Ephesus archaeological site and an enormous basilica was built on it. It is ironic that the most vocal opponents of Turkey’s accession to European Union used the “Christian roots” of Europe as an argument against it; the roots of christianity are all in Turkey. It was in Ephesus that the Third Ecumenical Council, the famous “Theotokos Council”, confirmed the Nicene Creed on which the Roman Catholic doctrine is still based, and which declared the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”. Despite this rich history, it is ironic that such Christian roots are usually overlooked in Turkey.
It is commonly said that Turks are 99% Sunni Muslim, and it is true that Turkey’s religious policy take it as a fact. While Orthodox, Armenian and Chaldean Christians are recognized as indigenous religious minorities, the Latin Catholic Christians are not. There are about 35,000 Catholics in Turkey. Most of them are so-called “Levantines”, or descendants of French or Italian expatriates who settled in Ottoman Empire. Izmir, the ancient Smyrna, was their most important city, and it was the most cosmopolitan city in Turkey.
Izmir’s most popular Catholic Church is the Dominican Church of the Holy Rosary, in the traditionally Levantine district of Alsancak. Every Thursday Father Stefano Negro, the parish priest, holds mass for a meager audience of elders.
“It was very different, when the Church was built in 1904,” tells the Dominican friar, a keen historian of his adopted city. “The Church was crowded and rich, because the parishioners considered it a symbol of their identity.
The Great Fire of Smyrna, in 1922, changed everything, along with the birth of the Turkish Republic. However, the turning point was in 1934, when foreigners were not allowed to work anymore in Turkey.” The skilled workers and entrepreneurs who had helped to make Izmir the economic capital of the Ottoman Empire emigrated, and the Catholic flock of Izmir began to dwindle.
The remaining Levantines are descendants of Italian or French families, and all of them feel uncomfortable in the “New Turkey” of President Erdogan. In the traditionally secular republic there was room for many minorities, but the Islamist rhetoric of the current ruling party is underscoring more and more the Sunni Muslim character of the Turkish State.
“This is not my church,” a lady in her 60's whispers before Father Stefano’s mass. “I was born in Karsiyaka, and I went to St. Helen’s Church. It was always open, and on St. Helen’s Day we could bring our cross in procession in the streets and everybody in the neighborhood celebrated with us. Now it’s impossible [and] we keep a low profile, should we irk religious zealots that are increasingly sensitive...”
Another lady, also in her 60s, comments bitterly that “Turkey is going back in time”. However, the others disagree staunchly. “It’s not true, it was never like this! This is something new, especially in Izmir, and it’s not, like some say, because of immigration from the East”.”Truth is,” the first woman comments “that Turks are angry at Europe. They are angry because they feel rejected. They see Islamophobia rising in the same Europe that keeps closing its doors as a Christian club. So they [Turks turn to their religious identity and don’t like us anymore.” The lady, who asks not to be mentioned by name, was born in Izmir, in the elegant Karsiyaka district. When she got married she move to Italy, where she lives with her children and grandchildren. Despite this, she keeps coming to her “hometown”, as she calls it, for several months a year. “But every time it’s more difficult” she laments.
Father Stefano, who came to Turkey in 1976, mostly agrees with the lady. When the military junta ruling the country after the 1980 coup started a fiercely nationalistic policy, the Catholic clergy was seriously worried they would be expelled. To be able to stay, Father Stefano managed to acquire the Turkish citizenship. “But I often have problems," he explains. "Now, every time the police check my ID, they argue about my religion indicated on it. ‘If you are really a Turk, how come that you are not a Sunni Muslim?’”
Things have worsened under Erdogan, with his religious and nationalist rhetoric centered on the Sunni identity of the country. Father Stefano, a witty friar with a sharp humor, turns sad when he talks about the size of his flock. “I can see them dwindle from the number of funerals I celebrate. It’s clear in the mass, where worshipers are all with white hair. There are weddings, sure, but most of them are mixed ones, and children have to be educated in public schools, where religion classes are mandatory, and of course we talk of Sunni religion [in the religious classes].” There are some newcomers to the church, most of whom are Catholic families of NATO military base personnel or technicians working in Izmir.
If the mass is attended by white haired, depressed worshipers, the atmosphere is completely different at the Italian school of Alsancak. Alsancak is an international elementary school and Turkish private kindergarten, managed by Italian nuns and secular teachers, both Italian and Turkish. Sister Roberta also has grey hair, well visible since religious dress is banned in schools, but she has the energy and high spirit of an elite soldier. “We don’t care of habits, we don’t need habits. We are the habits, we are nuns, even when we don’t dress as such” she proudly declares.
The kindergarten children are a merry mixed bunch, from Turkish, Italian, Spanish or American families. They are taught Italian language, but the education is strictly secular. However, Turkish citizens, even those with dual citizenship, cannot attend the elementary school. Only foreign children can continue their education in the nuns’ school and many families resent this. Sister Roberta shows a gift from a local tycoon, a container shipping business magnate, who says to own his success to the education he got at the Catholic nuns’ school.
Sister Roberta cameto Turkey in 1976, like Father Stefano, and she has seen hard times too. Despite various hardships she claims that nuns are highly respected for the education they give in the school, which in better times also hosted orphans and poor children. “We have always been here, since 1887, and we will stay.” After the 1922 fire, when all the foreign nationals had been evacuated on western warships, the youngest nun of the school volunteered to go back, soon followed by others, who kept the catholic presence in Izmir alive. However, Sister Roberta is bitterly disappointed that the Pope didn't come. “Of course we understand the security reasons, and God knows these are hard times. But it’s a bad omen, when it is too dangerous for the Catholic Pope to visit Izmir and the House of Mary in Ephesus.”
Many share her disappointment, and some are in disbelief. On the hill near Ephesus, where the House of Mary attracts pilgrims and tourists, a little crowd are waiting, in vain, for a surprise. “We hoped to see Pope Francis. He’s famous to change program at the last moment, maybe he will come here too. Why he didn't come? We don’t understand!” says the mother of a young boy who is busy lighting candles for the Virgin. They are from Izmir, but they are not Catholic: “We are Turks, we are Muslims and we are proud to be both.” she smiles “But of course we love Meryem Ana, Mother Mary!”
Maybe the dwindling Catholic community in Izmir and the cherished “Christian roots” of Europe could be the key to unlock both Turkey’s accession to Europe and the future of all its minorities.
Religious tourists among the ruins of the Saint Mary Church, in the archaeological site of Ephesus. This church was the place where the Third Ecumenical Council proclaimed the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”, in AD 431. The Virgin Mary is said to have moved to Ephesus with John the Evangelist, after her son’s crucifixion.
The “Meryem Ana Evi”, “House of Mother Mary”, on a hill near the ancient city of Ephesus. The place was visited by Pope Paul VI in 1967, by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and by Pope Benedict XVI, but security concerns forced Pope Francis to break the tradition, for the Izmir Catholics’ dismay.
A silver statuette of the Virgin near the “Meryem Ana Evi”, the “House of Mother Mary”, with the prayer to the Virgin by Saint Francis of Assisi. Respected in all theIslamic world for being the mother of Prophet Isa (known as Jesus to Christians), “Mother Mary” is especially revered in Turkey, where motherhood is highly respected.
A Turkish Muslim family lights candles outside of the “Meryem Ana Evi”, the “House of the Virgin Mary” in Ephesus. Like many others, they had come to the holy site hoping to see the Pope, despite the fact he had cancelled his trip to Izmir. Pope Francis is known to randomly change plans and this family was hoping for a surprise change of program.
A pilgrim prays on the tomb of the Apostle John, the Evangelist who wrote the Book of Revelation, also known as Apocalypse. The tomb was at the center of the enormous basilica dedicated to St. John. The Church of Ephesus was one of the “Seven Churches of Asia” mentioned in the Apocalypse. However, after the city was destroyed by an earthquake, it declined in favor of the Church of Izmir, the last survivor of the Seven.
A group of religious tourists observes an inscription in memory of the visit of Pope Paul VI, in 1967, among the ruins of St. John’s Basilica in Ephesus, about 100 km from Izmir. Though Izmir Catholics are well aware of security problems, especially with the current turmoil on Turkish borders, they show bitter disappointment for the cancellation of the Papal visit, feeling once more neglected by the rest of the Christian world.
The Saint Helen Church lies in the Karsiyaka neighborhood of Izmir.
A Levantine lady, who moved to Italy, but spends several months every year in her father's house in Karsiyaka, remembers that when she was a kid, the cross was carried in a public procession in the neighborhood and it was celebrated and respected by everybody, regardless of their religion. "But today it would be impossible," she laments. "Turks are angry at Europe, because they feel rejected and betrayed. And we, as Levantine citizens of European countries, do not feel supported by our governments."
A flight of starlings over the St. John’s Cathedral in Izmir. The Church was built in 1863, thanks to a donation of 11,000 gold Turkish lira by then Sultan Abdulaziz. However, nowadays’s Turkish politicians have sent contradictory signals: while the government has promised that Christian students would have their own religion classes, a Minister claimed that “Christianity is no longer a religion, but a culture.”
Two Catholic women pray at the Virgin Mary altar in Izmir’s St. John’s Cathedral. The women have their head covered while in the Church, as per the Levantine tradition. Though the Cathedral is dedicated to the Apostle St. John the Evangelist, buried in nearby Ephesus, devotion for the Virgin Mary is very popular, even among Muslims.
The words “God loved the World so much to give his only son so that none who believes in him would come to any harm” are inscribed, in Turkish, on the left side in the interior of the Izmir Cathedral.
Dedication of a stained glass window in Izmir Cathedral, offered by a French parishioner. Izmir Catholic community is the largest in Turkey, and the Cathedral is the seat of the only archdiocese of Turkey, covering all the south western Anatolian provinces. The current Archbishop, Ruggero Franceschini, was previously Vicar in Antakya. His successor, Msgr. Luigi Padovese, was slain and beheaded by his Turkish driver, apparently a deranged man, who some said was a religious fanatic.
The Holy Rosary Church in Alsancak was built in 1904 and was the only church that survived the Great Fire of 1922. After the fire, the church became a main communal center for Levantine Christians in Izmir.
Miss Caterina Ventura, the oldest member of Izmir's Catholic community, lights a candle at the Holy Lance altar, in the Church of Holy Rosary. Miss Ventura, born in 1921, was nine months old when her family fled to Italy, after the town was destroyed by the Great Fire at the end of Turkish War of Independence. Her family, of Italian and Greek ancestry, returned to Izmir after the new Turkish Republic was established.
Prayers for the deceased can be read in Italian, French and Turkish, the languages spoken by Catholic worshipers in Izmir. In the second half of 19th century, foreign entrepreneurs and skilled workers formed a community of western citizens who made Izmir the gate to Anatolia. The Aegean city soon became soon the economic capital of the Ottoman Empire and foreigners born there, calling themselves Levantines, were able to build churches and practice their religion.
A small number of worshipers attend a mass at the Holy Rosary Chruch in Izmir. Father Stefano Negro, the parish priest and keen historian of Izmir, says that he mostly holds funerals at the church. The few weddings he celebrates are almost always mixed, involving a non-Christian bride or groom.
Father Stefano offers communion to worshipers at the Holy Rosay Church in Izmir. While most of the churchgoers are Levantines, others are foreigners who work at at the local NATO base. Father Stefano arrived to Izmir in 1976 during the worst political violence in Turkey, which lead to a military coup in 1980. He obtained Turkish citizenship after the coup to be able to stay in the country.
Today, he often argues with the police when he shows them his ID; Turkish identity cards report the religion and he is indicated as Catholic. Some policemen wonder how he could he be a Turkish citizen if he is not a Sunni Muslim.
The relic of the Holy Lance, believed to date from the first century CE, is preserved at the Holy Rosary Church in Izmir. This spear is believed to have been used to stab Jesus Christ while on the cross. During the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922, over 5,000 people took refuge in this small church. When the friars returned, they found that the silver reliquary had been pillaged, but the priceless Lance was still there.
Sister Roberta, one of the nuns who teach at the Italian School in Izmir, receives flowers by alumni of her school who are paying her an unexpected visit. The Italian School is managed by the order of Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea. Students, however, mostly Muslim Turks, receive a strictly secular education.
Sister Roberta helps a student during a drawing class. Due to a law banning religious clothing in schools, the nuns cannot wear Christian outfits.
"People recognize us as nuns in the streets, because even if we don't dress as nuns, we behave as nuns!" Sister Roberta proudly says. She also says the nuns never received threats or faced problems; on the contrary, they are extremely respected for the way they do their job.
An old statuette of the Virgin Mary is placed at the Holy Rosary Church. The church was built in Izmir by the Dominican Friars in 1904, when the promulgation of the Rosary by Pope Leo XIII and the devotion to the Immaculate Conception were at widely embraced, after the sensation caused by the apparitions at Lourdes.
A stained glass window at the Holy Rosary Church in Izmir depicts Pope Pius X, later Saint Pius X, elected in 1903, just one year before the church was built. The shadow of the grate protecting the window from vandalism can be seen in this photo. Society in Izmir is known for tolerance towards minorities, but in the past few years there have been increasing fears that Christians could be the target of attacks by extremists.
A boy in his father's arms waiting to visit Black Christ figure. This is an almost obligatory stop for Filipino Catholics. Queued up to Christ so they can touch his feet and pray.
An elderly beggar beside a large box placed in the Quiapo Church, where donations for the upcoming visit of Pope Francisco to the Philippine Islands are requested. (The visit is scheduled from 15 to 19 January 2015) Quiapo, Manila. Philippines.
Text by Vesna Vukoja, Photos by David Ozkoidi
Quiapo is both a neighborhood and a prominent city square in Manila. It is also a place where Catholocism and Islam have coexisted for decades after Americans arrived in 1901, and as waves of Muslims fled the ongoing conflict in Mindanao.
In the Philippines it is known as a center for religious and commercial activity. The name Quiapo comes from the kiyapo plant, a water cabbage (Pistia Stratiotes). The story goes as such: long before the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines, Quiapo was a farming community surrounded by canals from the Pasig River. Throughout the year, kiyapo plants would fill the canals to such an extent that the place came to be known as Kiyapo. In Tagalog, the name Kiyapo was changed to Quiapo at the behest of the Spanish. Before long, it was a prosperous part of the city where grand buildings, the Quiapo Church and numerous merchants could be found.
Quiapo was still an important district when the Americans arrived. Since the American colonial government wanted to make Manila the “business hub of the Orient,” it became even more prosperous with its preponderance of educational institutions and commercial establishments.
Catholicism and the Quiapo Church
The majority of the Filipino population is Christian, most of whom are Roman Catholic. As such, the Catholic Church exerts a powerful social and political influence over everyday life in the Philippines.
One of the most famous in Manila, the Quiapo Church was founded by Franciscan Missionaries in 1586 and made entirely of bamboo and Nipa palm. Located in the Plaza Miranda along the Quezon Boulevard, it is also known as “Church of the Black Nazarene” or the “Basílica Menor del Nazareno Negro” because it houses the “Black Nazarene,” a wooden sculpture of Christ believed to have been carved by a Mexican-Indian artist from Acapulco, Mexico and purchased with Spanish galleon.
Each Friday is known as Quiapo Day, when masses attend the church to visit Nuestro Señor Jesús Nazareno. Here they exhibit a traditional aspect of Filipino folk Catholicism: each of them climb the narrow stairs of the church to kiss Christ’s foot or wipe it with handkerchiefs kept specifically for this purpose. They believe this has a miraculous healing effect and will help them with their prayers.
The Muslim community in Quiapo
When asked about their Muslim neighbors, the current rector of Quiapo Church, Rev. Msgr. Jose Clemente Ignacio said, “The Muslim community is continuously growing. This population growth is accompanied by a growing tension between ethnolinguistic Moro tribes. The conflict in Mindanao is very complex, and is saturated with historical, economical, political and cultural issues. The government needs to include all stakeholders in order to find effective solutions to this problem, and these solutions should integrate all the aspects and issues mentioned.”
There is an Islamic Centre in the neighboring district of San Miguel. It was established in 1964 as a result of the exodus of Muslims from Southern Mindanao due to continued conflict between the government and various secessionist movements, first the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and later, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). San Miguel borders Quiapo to the east and south. However, its residents actually spend most of their time in Quiapo, since this is where their businesses have been established. That which unites the Quiapo and San Miguel communities is one of the biggest mosques in the country, the Golden Mosque.
The Golden Mosque, also known as the Masjid Al-Dahab, was built in 1978 by the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986) to honor the state visit of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. However, it was never able to fulfill its initial purpose, as Gaddafi’s visit to the Philippines was subsequently cancelled.
Nonetheless, the mosque eventually became one of Manila’s principal centers of Islamic culture, ensuring the vibrancy of the Muslim communities of Quiapo and San Miguel to this day.
Before the Spanish colonized the Philippines in the 15th century, Manila had been a wealthy kingdom effectively ruled by Muslims. Combined with an influx of Muslims from Southern Mindanao after the World War II, the presence of the Golden Mosque in the latter half of the 20th century made the Quiapo area an additionally desirable place to settle.
Asking the chief administrator of the Golden Mosque whether any interreligious confrontations had ever taken place between Muslims and Catholics, Mohammad Ershad replied: “We have never had nor desire to have any problems with our Catholic brothers, and anyone who wants to come is welcome in our little mosque.”
Plaza Miranda and the market
Plaza Miranda, in the heart of the Quiapo district, is a town square named after Jose Sandino y Miranda, secretary of the treasury of the Philippines from 1853 to 1863. It is located in front of the Quiapo Church and is a popular place for political rallies. On August 21, 1971, while the Liberal Party was holding a rally in the plaza, a bomb exploded, killing nine civilians and injuring nearly 100.
The first thing one notices when visiting Quiapo is the local vendors sitting side-by-side and selling religious accessories, herbal folk medicines and occult objects.
Of the folk medicine sold in Quiapo’s informal markets, the most (in)famous is the herbal preparation (pampa regla) used for abortions that is on sale just in front of the doors of the church. Although abortion is illegal in the Philippines, in Quiapo this illegal herbal remedy is readily available. In fact, it is individuals who cannot afford the actual surgical procedure that go to these vendors. The media often covers stories in which dead fetuses have been abandoned outside of the Quiapo Church.
Love potions are also common, in addition to herbal remedies for curing physical ailments, candles to petition for various needs, palm readers, tarot reading, astrology and other occult services – all just next to Quiapo Church. This amazing symbiosis of the religious and the occult can shock even local visitors, though it does leave an exotic impression upon everyone goes there. The extremely dense and busy nature of the place; the cacophony of music from people hawking pirated CDs and DVDs; the smell of local food being prepared on the sidewalk; from shoes to dresses, toys and household appliances, fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants, the presence of fortune tellers and sidewalk vendors contribute to the unique experience that awaits you in Quiapo.
Many might ask themselves how a country in which the Catholic Church exerts such a strong influence would allow these kinds of activities at the foot of the capital city’s church doors.
Yet a great many religious relics, amulets, prayer anecdotes, spiritual candles, etc. are also sold at the doors of the Quiapo Church. Similarly, itinerants near the Golden Mosque peddle black covering dresses, scarves and halal food to the Muslim community.
What’s more, the Plaza also provides a wide range of other services, such as street barbers and salons, electronic repairs and taga-dasal (someone who prays for your wishes).
An impoverished area where people get by on next to nothing, the Quiapo neighborhood is also full of beggars asking for alms and barefoot children persistently following people in the hope of procuring spare change, food, or something to drink. Anyone visiting the area will always be left with an indelible sight, sound and smell of poverty.
In the Philippines you can buy any manner of product wrapped in a small plastic bag, even shampoo, detergent and toothpaste are sold in small, individually wrapped plastic packs. This is because Filipinos live on subsistence-level wages – just enough to get them through the day. Hence their purchases are meant to suffice for one day at a time. By packaging products in small plastic sachets, they become affordable even to low income markets and those who are barely surviving, such as the homeless.
Though very difficult at times, many homeless families in Quiapo say they are generally happy with their conditions. To foreign observers, this might be described as the resilience of Filipinos, who constantly exude a positive attitude and a general sense of happiness. When the author asked a homeless single mother what her hopes for the future were, she said she hoped to still be there in the street, as happy as she is now.
A densely populated district with large concentrations of poverty, Quiapo immediately attracts all kinds of criminal activity, gang violence and large numbers of robberies.
Spikes in crime have been particularly noticeable on Fridays, when devoted Catholics flock to the Quiapo Church and their Muslim counterparts head to the Golden Mosque, providing criminals with far more moving targets that particular day of the week.
A nearby bridge that crosses a road with very heavy traffic and which connects Quiapo’s Catholic and Muslim communities has a security officer with a machine gun named Joseph Agnus, age 44. When asked what his main role is, he says he’s been contracted by a private company to protect a huge advertisement plastered across the bridge.
Aside from monitoring this criminally prone district around the clock, police also keep watch over the presumed illegal activities of old movie houses notorious for showing pornographic films and serving as brothels for male prostitutes.
In Quiapo’s golden days, American vaudeville, European opera and Tagalog zarzuela flourished here from the 1940s to the 1960s. Previously home to the music and theatre industries, it attracted the musically talented – composers, band and orchestra players, music teachers, instrument makers, opera costume designers and make-up artists, among others.
Seeing the glory of the neighborhood brought down by dirt and decay, it is only with a strong, sad sense of nostalgia that old timers remember Quiapo. One of them is Maria Santos-Viola, a granddaughter of Ariston Bautista and Perona Nakpil, two of Manila’s most prominent citizens in the first half of the 20th century. Today she runs the Nakpil-Bautista house as a museum showcasing items of the Katipunan, a movement that sought the independence from Spanish colonial rule and started the Philippine revolution in 1896.
According to Maria, one of the reasons behind Quiapo’s physical decay is the “rootlessness” of its people. The original wealthy and influential residents of Quiapo began moving to the suburbs of Quezon City and Makati in the 1970s. Without any particular attachment to Quiapo, the area’s new settlers are indifferent to the health of the neighborhood, seeing it only as a temporary place to live that has led to its current state of neglect.
One of the oldest houses in Quiapo, the Nakpil-Bautista House was built by the architect Arcadio Arellano for Dr. Ariston Bautista and his wife Perona Nakpil in 1914. Dr. Bautista was one of the first professors at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and was widely know for having invented a medicine to combat cholera. Meanwhile, Perona was the sister of Julios Nakpil, a musician, composer and commander of the revolutionary Katipunan forces in the northern Philippines under Andrés Bonifacio. Andres Bonifacio, for his part, is known as being the “Father of the Philippine Revolution” for founding and subsequently leading the Katipunan movement.
But this was also house of Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus, the latter of whom had first married to Andres Bonifacio at the age of 18 and joined him in the revolutionary struggle against Spain. When Bonifacio was executed, she fell in love with Julio Nakpil. As such, the museum gives some insight into the history of both the Ilustrados and the Katipunan revolutionary movement.
The Ilustrados was another term for the Filipino educated class during the 19th century. Initially, the Ilustrados preferred not to win independence from Spain, but instead petitioned for legal equality for both Peninsulares (Iberian-born Filipinos) and natives. Jose Rizal, an Ilustrado and national hero for his novels, Noli Me Tangere (“Touch Me Not”) and El filibusterismo (“The Subversive”), exposed the injustices imposed on Filipinos under the Spanish colonial regime to the rest of the world. Apart from these works, his eventual execution in 1896 would unite the Ilustrados with the Katipunan and eventually lead to the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and the Declaration of independence on 12 June 1898.
Surrounded by Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malasia and Brunei, that later of which recently implemented Sharia Law, the Philippines is trying hard to suppress the rise of radical Islamism in its southern province of Mindanao. While much of the world burns with religious strife, the neighborhood of Quiapo in Manila is a welcome reminder that inter-religious coexistence is not only possible but also thriving in the Philippines.
A man recites verses while taking care footwear and donations from those who have entered the Golden Mosque.
The number of Muslims increased around the Golden Mosque as do fast food corporations. Quiapo, Manila. Philippines.
A group of children watching the cockfight, common throughout the Philippines and where money bets make them a very lucrative business.
A group of children watching the cockfight, common throughout the Philippines and where money bets make them a very lucrative business.
Studio where are repaired and replaced the statues in Quiapo Church and where several people are working permanently.
A boat sails on the formerly pristine waters of Quiapo currently highly contaminated. The district has been transformed into a crowded, depressed, dirty, unsafe place forgotten by local authorities.
Inside the former home of Dr. Ariston Bautista (see his portrait in the center of the picture) and members of the "Katipunan" secret society of revolutionary intellectuals formed after the banning of "Liga Filipina", which was founder and later national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. The house was built by architect Arcadio Arellano with a strong modernist style unique in the Philippines.
Natural solutions are shown along with beverages of all kinds and for all the ills in the arcades of the blocks adjacent to the main streets of Quiapo.