“If it is a crime to love the poor and support them in their just struggles against injustice, then I am ready to face the firing squad.” – Fr. Zacarias Agatep
These were the bold words Fr. Zacarias Agatep wrote in his letter addressed to then President Ferdinand Marcos after his release from four months of detention during martial law. Fondly called by fellow priests, seminarians and parishioners in Ilocos Sur as Apo Kari, Fr. Agatep spent his summers in his seminary days helping the poor farmers in their farms. He briefly served in a Parish after his ordination but his love for small farmers compelled him to be with them and work full time in advocating for their rights.
He became fulltime chaplain of the Northern Luzon chapter of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) and helped organize the farmers. He tirelessly trained the farmers and helped them set up cooperatives, raised their consciousness about their rights, particularly, their right to own the land they till. He organized the farmers in the towns of Sta. Cruz, Sta. Lucia, Salcedo and Galimuyod in Ilocos Sur. He mobilized them and campaigned for land rent reduction, eradication of usurious practices of loan sharks, fair prices of farm products.
When martial law was declared by the late dictator Marcos in September 1972, the discord within the FFF on how to cope with martial law eventually led to a split of the organization. The mainstream faction, represented by Montemayor, decided to support the government on the grounds that Marcos had promised agrarian reform and that peace and order would be restored under martial law. This led to the split within the organization.
In August 1973, the FFF’ s National Policy Board Chairperson Jeremias Montemayor considered resigned or separated Fr. Agatep, together with other militant leaders – among them were Noel Mondejar, Gerry Bulatao, Fr. Luis Jalandoni, Felicisimo Patayan, Sr. Eva Varon, Charles Avila and more – who opposed FFF’s decision to support Marcos martial law.
Fr. Agatep returned to Parish work but continued his advocacies for the small farmers, this time, taking up the cause of the tobacco farmers in Ilocos Sur. He became one of the staunchest spokesperson of the poor tobacco farmers, speaking against local and foreign control of the tobacco industry in the country.
He later joined the Christians for National Liberation (CNL) that fellow FFF leader and former priest Edicio de la Torre founded, and began to secretly support the fight against the dictatorial regime.
From the interior towns of Ilocos Sur, he was assigned to the town of Caoayan where he continued organizing the poor farmers and fisher folk. On 4 September 1980, military men raided the Parish convent and arrested Fr. Agatep. He was taken to Camp Diego Silang in Ilocos Sur and was charged with subversion and illegal possession of firearms. He was later transferred to Camp Dangwa in Benguet and finally brought and detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Metro Manila. In his four-month incarceration, Fr. Agatep remained strong and continued to minister to his fellow prisoners.
In another letter he wrote to President Ferdinand Marcos while in detention, he described his imprisonment as a frame up and said: “If this is the kind of justice we get from the so-called guardians of the New Society, then there is no wonder why there are some people who go to the hills to fight the government.” He was finally released on 24 December 1980 as part of the regime’s preparations for the coming visit of then Pope Paul VI.
Fr. Agatep’s arrest and detention strengthened all the more his commitment to fight for the rights of the poor farmers. After his release, he continued to organize the farmers and fisher folk in Ilocos Sur. While doing community work among the farmers, military elements gunned down Fr. Agatep together with former deacon, Alfredo Cesar in Brgy. Baybayading, Salcedo, Ilocos Sur on 27 October 1982.
The military later claimed that Fr. Agatep and Alfredo Cesar were killed in an encounter with the rebels. They labeled him and his companion as communist rebels. His body was riddled with bullets, most of them at the back, belying the claims of the military that he was killed in an encounter.
Religious groups denounced Fr. Agatep and Alfredo Cesar’s brutal death. Some 27 priests held a concelebrated mass for them at the Daughters of St. Paul chapel in Manila. About 500 people from different ecumenical groups attended the memorial rites. Poem below was dedicated to him:
The Last Mass of Zacarias
(In memoriam Fr. Zacarias Agatep)
By: Fr. Amado Picardal
In a roofless and wall-less cathedral
you celebrated the ultimate sacrifice.
The fields, the hills and forests
have become your boundless altar.
The host, your bullet-pierced body.
The wine, your warm and crimson blood.
The Lord has always been with you
and you have always been with Him.
You met Him in their farms and villages.
You ate with Him in their nipa huts.
You listened to Him and they shared with
Their agony and grief, their vision and dreams.
You became one with Him as you struggled with them
To build a new society
Where there will be no more dictators
who will terrorize our nation,
Where there will be no more imperialists
who will control our destiny,
Where the riches of the earth will be shared by all
And the kingdom of justice, peace and freedom will become a reality.
You finally sealed your covenant with Him
When you offered your life for them
the ultimate sacrament of your love.
Go in peace, father and brother Zacarias
Your mass has finally ended
but ours will go on.
We will continue to love and serve the Lord
In the least of our brethren — the poor and oppressed,
To make ourselves true and living sacrifice
Of bread and wine, our own body and blood
In the memory of the risen Lord
and in your memory.
Fr. Zacarias Agatep, a true servant of Christ, believed that man’s salvation can neither be restricted to the economic, political and socio-cultural aspects solely nor confined to the realm of purely spiritual. True to his commitment to serve God and the least of His children, he sacrificed his life defending the rights of the poor farmers. (Zenaida Mique)