Holding Jesus hostage

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    REPORTED STOLEN over the weekend from the St. James the Apostle Parish Church in Betis, Guagua, Pampanga were two centuries-old ivory images: the head and hands of the Virgen de la Correa and the whole of the Infant Jesus cradled in her arms.

    It was the second time for the image of the Infant to be stolen, the first time before the fiesta procession on Dec. 30, 2013. Early January this year, “ecclesiastical art restorer” Tom Joven reportedly ransomed the head, hands and feet of the Child Jesus for P167,000.

    That it happened again, with extra loot to boot this time, lends greater relevance to what I wrote here only last Feb. 17 about the first incident. And an affirmation to the rightness of that wag: Once is a mistake, twice is stupidity.

    HIS IMAGE, that is. Now that’s getting ahead of the story. But I am sure you already got the drift from the title alone. Least theology, mostly criminology here though.

    So it came to pass that on December 30, 2013, just before the Betis fiesta procession, the Virgen de la Correa was found devoid of the Sto. Niño in the crook of her arm.

    No cries of miracle, as is the wont when things like this happen, were, thankfully, raised. No addition to those tales of talking, dancing, and weeping Sto. Niños of one walking away from the Blessed Mother and seen playing with the neighbourhood urchins.

    Simply robbed was the Betis Church of its priceless heirloom of over 300 years, the images recorded in the 1790 inventory of the property of the church founded by the Augustinians in 1572.

    A frantic search ensued. “We appeal to you to be on the lookout for this significant piece of Betis heritage and let us know of possible leads that can help us recover it,” the Archdiocesan Commission on Church Heritage (ACCH) posted on Facebook.

    The police investigated, perfunctorily. And then, the recovery of the image. By itself, nothing short of a miracle. No, the image was not placed in a basket  – like those abandoned babies – and placed at the doorway of a monastery.

    It was – head, hands, feet minus the body – in a plastic bag delivered on January 6, 2014, traditionally the Feast of the Three Kings, to the house of one Tom Joven, identified in news reports as an “art restorer” and president of the Parish Pastoral Council of San Guillermo Parish in Bacolor town. This, after Joven was reported to have paid P167,000.

    According to Joven, the wooden body was removed “to erase the identity of the image.” “I went out of my way to help because I know this is a priceless legacy of the Augustinians,” he said, narrating how he reached out to his network of santo collectors and heritage advocates and followed the leads which took him to Metro Manila until he established contact with the person holding the image.

    It would seem that this Joven has a knack for recovering stolen images. The intrepid Tonette Orejas’ Inquirer story on the recovery of the image related how “With the help of antique collectors and heritage workers in 2009, Joven also recovered an antique image of St. John the Apostle stolen from the cathedral of Tayabas City, Quezon province.”

    Same modus as in the case of the Betis image there. It was not said though if Joven paid any ransom for St. John.

    So the image was recovered. And the whole of the Pampanga Church rejoiced. Though no Te Deum was held in thanksgiving for the image’s recovery. A denunciation from the ACCH, in this instance, could not be helped: “In recent years, this illegal trade has been carried out with alarming boldness and shamelessness.

    In cases like this, some unscrupulous entities are bound to make easy money. It is most unfortunate that they choose to ignore the fact that what make religious icons priceless and precious are the historical, cultural and spiritual meanings that Catholic devotees attach to such symbols of their faith.”

    Resolving: “We vow to cooperate with authorities to minimize the threat of losing more church goods to thieves.”

    So all’s well that ends well? Not quite, it appears. Just last Friday, San Fernando Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio S. David was reported to have wished an investigation on the image’s recovery were undertaken, seeing a possible violation of the anti-fencing law there.

    Even as the prelate ascertained the “good intention” of Joven to retrieve the image, still he expressed dismay over the “lack of investigation on the theft and eventual recovery of the image.”

     “Unfortunately, walang masyadong investigation na nagawa kasi nga ni-‘ransom’ nga. I would have wanted the police to really get involved but as of the moment, naibalik na, narestore na. ‘Yon ang mahalaga.” So was David quoted as saying. Still: “I have a heavy heart because there was an exchange of money.”

    Joven’s ransom did not come free for the Betis faithful, it turned out. The St. James the Apostle Parish has initiated second collections in Masses to raise funds for repayment of the ransom paid.

    He did not have to say it, but I read Bishop Ambo’s concerns. Instead of “minimizing the threat of losing more church goods to thieves,” as the ACCH hoped when it vowed to cooperate with authorities, ransoming the image may just bring in the contrary effect.

    The government position of not giving in to ransom demands of kidnappers and terrorists equally applies here. The more ransom paid, the more kidnappings.

    Unwittingly, the Betis incident may have opened a new opportunity for KFR – kidnapfor- ransom – groups. Aside from rich scions and elderly dons, they now have every antique santo as target. Easier targets at that, being not so much unwilling as unresisting, and easily bundled in their wooden or ivory forms.

    And, by Jove, the KFRs know just the right, ready person to contact for ransom negotiations.

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    YES, I can’t help but sense some modus to this madness.

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