Just how far should foreign missionaries go to involve themselves in the political and social problems of the countries where they are assigned? The issue is highlighted here by the deportation last month of the Rev. Ralph Kroes. Like four other Roman Catholic Maryknoll priests also expelled or denied reentry by the Philippine government, Fr. Kroes had been working in Tagum municipality on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
In Tagum, local Filipinos have sought church assistance to correct alleged injustices, including abuses by the military, arbitrary executions, land seizure , and unfair labor practices, says Maryknoll regional superior Fr. James Ferry.
In the process, he says, the clergymen were caught in a cross-fire.
Details of complaints against the barred missionaries never became public because no formal open "trial" was held prior to the immigration decisions. The current situation in Tagum gives some idea of the setting in which the presence of the missionaries became controversial.
The are around Tagum is one of the richest agricultural districts on Mindanao. It is fertile that 92 percent of the Philippines' banana exports are grown there.
But in Mindanao there are often violent confrontations between the government "acting on behalf of local military and landowner interests) and local settlers and tribesmen.
Mindanao, once thought of as a land of promise, has become a battleground between government troops, on one hand, and Muslim secessionists and communist insurgents on the other. Thousands have been displaced as a result of the Muslim rebellion and the modernization of agriculture by large agribusinesses.
Local clergymen and foreign missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church, which is highly influential in the Philippines, have witnessed this continuing conflict. Some of them have sought to exercise a moderating influence on violence and other abuses.
In both the Philippines and Latin America, the New York State-based Maryknoll order has grown controversial. Some of its members, especially younger ones, have adopted an activist philosophy of "raising the consciousness" of those seen to be oppressed.
Some clergymen have taken openly political stands, criticizing what they see as repressive governments in countries to which they are assigned.
Earlier this year US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick commented that the three nuns, including two Maryknollers, slain in El Salvador in late 1980 were "not just nuns but political activists."
The Maryknollers deny allegations that they are Marxist subversives and insist they are trying to assist realistically in difficult situations.
Fr. Kroes was met by Philippine immigration and deportation officials at Manila's international airport, and ordered to take the next available flight back to United States. Immigration Commissioner Edmundo Reyes said taht Fr. Kroes was an "undersirable alien."
Fr. Ferry told the press that the government had accused Fr. Kroes of "sedition, of asking the people [in Tagum] to rebel against the government by way of unjust labor strikes, and of encouraging them to join the outlawed communist New People's Army [NPA]."
Fr. Ferry denied the charges and said that Fr. Kroes's political views were "rather conservative."
The government's refusal to readmit Fr. Kroes stirred the Roman Catholic church hierarchy, particularly the Maryknoll priests, lay brothers, and missionaries who appealed for a reconsideration of the decision.
Commissioner Reyes responded by saying, "The case is closed."
Fr. Ferry said that as far as the Maryknollers are concerned, the case is not closed, because if Fr. Kroes was being accused of subversion, he should be entitled to a day in court.
The cases of the Maryknoll priests, Fr. Ferry charged, were not isolated ones because several other Roman Catholic priests and lay leaders have experienced various forms of harassment including arrest and detention.