Carlos Celdran was a hero. Or, at least, on that day in September, he was dressed like one. And in only a few minutes time, everything, his carefully plotted protest, his statement about the Catholic Church's efforts to prevent Filipinos from accessing birth control, would be overshadowed by something so much larger—his arrest on blasphemy charges.
It was September 30, 2010, when Celdran arrived outside the grand Manila Cathedral dressed as Jose Rizal, a man revered as a national hero in the Philippines after he was executed by the Spanish in 1896 for rebelling against the colonial government. It was all part of a one-man protest against the Catholic Church's interference in what was then still an ongoing fight over a law that would've provided Filipinos with contraceptives.
He was carrying a sign reading "DAMASO," a reference to the notorious Father Damaso from Rizal's novel Noli Me Tángere. In Rizal's book, Father Damaso is a priest on a power trip who rapes the protagonist’s mother. He's a clear villain, and Celdran's choice to use his name to protest the Church was exactly the kind of thing you would expect him to do.
Celdran lives his life at the intersection of history, art, and politics, hosting walking tours of Manila's historic walled city of Intramuros—an act he views as a piece of political performance art. So, dressing up like a revolutionary to protest the Church with a semi-obscure reference to an old book, made sense to those who knew him.
"The art I do is reflective of the urban milieu I live in, whether that’s through my performances, tours, or activism,” he told me. “Manila can be an overwhelming experience, but it's also my obsession. The overwhelmingness is the part that intrigues me the most."
His initial idea was simple enough: dressed as a bishop, he would have his picture taken outside the cathedral, holding the placard reading “DAMASO,” which he would later post on his 130,000-followers-strong Facebook page.
But the day before the protest, things had already started to go wrong.
"The day before the protest, the costume I was going to rent out got caught in a flood," he told me. "Jose Rizal was my second option. On the day itself, instead of staying outside for the photograph, it started to rain. So I ran inside the cathedral.”
That's when the protest took a turn.
Confronting the Church
Celdran, still dressed like a revolutionary hero, suddenly found himself in the middle of a meeting between Catholic clergy and Protestant bishops. No one there understood what the hell was going on. The room was dead silent, Celdran recalled.
"The Protestants thought the Catholics were doing it, the Catholics thought the Protestants were doing it,” Celdran said with a laugh. “They thought my placard was referring to Saint Damaso—the man who translated the Bible from Aramaic to Latin.”
The silence continued until Celdran’s booming voice echoed across the cathedral’s lofty aisles.
“Stop meddling in politics!” he howled.
What followed was the longest three minutes of Celdran’s life. Before he knew it, the police had arrived and arrested him. And then, in January 2011, the Manila Metropolitan Court found Celdran guilty of “offending religious feelings” under Article 133 of the penal code. In 2013, he appealed his case to the Supreme Court, only to be denied one month ago.
Celdran recently filed a motion for reconsideration on the Supreme Court’s August decision. Whether the motion will be granted or denied remains uncertain.
If convicted, he faces a maximum of one year, one month, and 11 days behind bars for committing “acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful” in a “place devoted to religious worship or during celebration of any religious ceremony." It would be a historic conviction. The law has only been used once to successfully convict someone of offending "the feelings of the faithful" since the Philippines declared independence from the United States in 1946—and it's this case against Celdran.
But the trend is not unique to the Philippines, especially around Asia.
In countries like Indonesia, where VICE has an office, convictions under the blasphemy law have risen in recent years. The most famous case is the jailing of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama over a statement questioning an interpretation of holy Islamic texts that most, including the police, was edited to twist his words.
Others have fallen on the wrong side of the blasphemy law as well, including a Buddhist woman who complained that her local mosque was too loud. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison for basically asking her local mosque to turn their loudspeakers down—something Indonesia's largest Muslim organization said definitely isn't blasphemy.
And in Pakistan, which has one of the most draconian blasphemy laws in the world, one case found a 70-year-old British citizen, with a history of mental illness, sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for allegedly writing letters posing as the Prophet Mohammed.
Similar statutes outlawing blasphemy or anything that hurts the feelings of a specific religion are on the books in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Myanmar. Recent offenses and potential violations include everything from Christians using the word "Allah" to mean God (Brunei) to insulting the Prophet while in a mosque (Malaysia).
But in the Philippines, the law—and Celdran's conviction—are in murkier waters. The country's 48-word blasphemy law doesn't explain what, exactly, can be considered "notoriously offensive," in a house of worship.
Ironically, when Ronaldo Reyes, a Catholic lawyer with the prosecution, interviewed the religious figures who were in the church that day – only one of them said he was offended by Celdran's actions.
“I don’t even think it was the word [Damaso], it was just my presence,” Celdran said. “Because it’s a criminal case, it’s me versus the People of the Philippines!”
There's now a real worry that if the Supreme Court denies Celdran's second appeal that it will open the door to wider use of the blasphemy law in the Philippines.
"You offend somebody in a mall when a mass is going on, you can still go to jail even if it’s inside a mall,” he said. “It's just so poorly defined, it's set up for disaster.”
Then there's the fact that the law might be, at its core, unconstitutional. Article 133, the blasphemy law, is a holdover from the Spanish colonial years that was meant to protect the Roman Catholic Church from criticism. The Philippines' constitution, the legal document establishing the country as an independent nation with its own set of laws, should've abolished colonial laws like this.
Yet both are still in place somehow, despite the fact that the they contradict each other.
“It is a vague law since offending religious feelings curtails the separation of church and state, as well as one’s constitutional right to freely express,” said Red Tani, the president of Filipino Freethinkers—one of the country’s largest activist organizations promoting secular thought.
Tani, who once campaigned alongside Celdran in support of the reproductive health law—the same law that started this entire ordeal—is now pushing for the government to repeal the blasphemy law outright.
“When Carlos filed his first appeal in 2013, the Supreme Court essentially ignored the argument that Article 133 was outdated and unconstitutional,” Tani explained. “The Supreme Court wants to believe that it’s independent. But with all the things it has done lately, I think they are swayed by people in power."
Tani is referencing the fact that, these days, the courts don't seem so independent anymore. Maria Lourdes Sereno, a vocal critic of President Rodrigo Duterte and the former chief justice of the High Court, was removed from her position in May after being declared an "enemy," by Duterte. To call her removal controversial would be an understatement. Sitting judges in the Philippines are only allowed to be removed through an act of congress—an impeachment—not with a hearing.
To a lot of people, Sereno's removal looked a lot like an attack on the independence of the courts by an administration that has repeatedly flirted with the idea of declaring nationwide martial law and, by some accounts, is pushing the country towards a form of federalism.
“The entire penal code and Constitution need an enema!” Celdran said. "Going into Manila Cathedral with all the bishops there, dressed as Jose Rizal, and using the word 'Damaso' in relation to the RH Bill—it was a perfect storm for… an idea!”
He didn't have to write a manifesto or explain the meanings behind his protest. Instead, upon his arrest, 100 million Filipinos saw the connection between Rizal, the Church, and reproductive rights. It was far more effective than a less theatrical protest, Celdran explained.
And it's this connection, and the ensuing trial, that gave the protest a life far beyond that one day in September.
“Had I gone in there wearing jeans and a t-shirt that said 'pass the RH Bill, down with theocracy,' the result would not have been what it was," he said. "Damaso has become something different from what it was in 2010—it’s now a multi-purpose, multi-sauce, multi-pronged protest. Now, I really have to focus on freedom of speech. Because if this law gets me, it can get everybody.”