The Return of the Bells of Balangiga sign now

In 1901, during a battle of the Philippine-American War in the small town of Balangiga, in the Philippines, our church bells were taken from the yard of a damaged Catholic Church and brought back to the United States as "war trophies." Since that time, for more than 100 years, these bells, which are revered in the Philippines, much as the Liberty Bell is revered in the United States, have been sitting and decaying on a concrete slab at an Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a location closed to the public.

This is an Open Letter to President George W. Bush, the United States Congress and the Helsinki Commission encouraging your support for the return of these treasured church bells back to their rightful owners, the Catholic Diocese of Borongan and the parishioners of Balangiga.

We take heart in this pursuit from the legacy of His Holiness, the late Pope John Paul II, who taught the world to value the bond of humanity that is commonly shared by people and nations regardless of differences in faith, politics and history. We are also deeply honored by the gracious act of the Holy See who endorsed to President Bush our letter of petition for the return of our church bells.

The Philippine-American War ended over a century ago and the time has come for the United States to follow the recent policy of supporting the return of church artifacts. We note that much effort took place recently to facilitate the return of the Schneerson Collection, a compilation of rare religious books and manuscripts, formerly owned by the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch community. This cherished anthology has been held for nearly a century by the former Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation. The Helsinki Commission and its Chairman, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, held hearings on the return of these valuable religious texts. The United States Senate understood the importance of this church property being returned and showed their support by adding the signatures of all 100 United States Senators, including Senator Thomas and Senator Enzi of Wyoming, to a letter that President Bush delivered to President Putin in February 2005.

The United States government has an opportunity to lead by example by returning the church bells to our village. Perhaps then President Putin will follow suit and return the Schneerson Collection to the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch community. We are further encouraged by the government of Italy and its action of returning the Obelisk of Axum to Ethiopia after 70 years.

As stated, two church bells are now on display in an open case in a field on F. E. Warren Air Force Base They are slowly being ravaged by the effects of the weather and are in need of restoration. A third bell is a traveling mascot with U.S. Forces in South Korea. At this juncture, it is worth noting that on April 24, 1863, President Lincoln signed General Order 100, Article 34, which prohibited members of the U.S. Armed Forces from taking church properties.

There is confusion as to whose jurisdiction they fall under but it is believed to be the Department of Defense. In 1998, Wyoming Veterans Groups argued to keep the bells but on March 26, 2005, the Wyoming Veterans Commission voted for their return. We are deeply grateful for this courageous stance and understand that it came after careful thought and consideration. However, Governor Freudenthal of Wyoming has gone on record stating his opposition to the bells return.

Over the decades since the bells were taken from the Church, there have been many individuals passionately working for their return. We are grateful for the help and support of research provided by Ms. Jean Wall, the daughter of Private Gamlin, a soldier who saw action in Balangiga as well as the Balangiga Research Group. In addition we salute the tireless efforts put forth by Mr. R Sonny Sampayan, Mr. Erwin Swede Huelsewede, Dr. and Mrs. Tom Stern, Ms Maria Lazaro-Elemos and Mr. Jose Molano. Their help on our behalf has been invaluable.

These bells are valued significantly not only for their place in history that binds both Filipinos and Americans, but also for the opportunity they present for fostering much stronger ties and in enhancing lasting goodwill between our two countries, the Philippines and the United States.

It is our fervent hope that these bells, when restored to the original settings in our Catholic parish, could ring again this time as a spiritual symbol of the bond that will always exist between our two countries.

We will always be grateful for the courageous decision of the Wyoming Veterans Commission. Needless to say, we are very much encouraged, and we look for continued global support in our effort to return the bells to our Parish in Balangiga. So we pray.

+ Leonardo Y. Medroso, DD
Bishop of the Diocese of Borongan

Rev. Fr Saturnino L. Obzunar
Balangiga Parish Priest

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Wendi FarrellBy:
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President Bush, United States Congress and the Helsinki Commission


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