In the Philippines, Religion and Nature Collide Many Catholics in the Philippines see natural disasters as acts of God. But a growing number of religious groups there and elsewhere in the world are encouraging worshippers to give God a hand by caring for the environment.
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In the Philippines, Religion and Nature Collide

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In the Philippines, Religion and Nature Collide

In the Philippines, Religion and Nature Collide

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Now time for Climate Connections, our series with National Geographic.

Even the Vatican is talking about climate change these days. Earlier this year, Pope Benedict hosted a conference on global warming, and he has announced plans to preserve forests, install solar cells, and make Vatican City a carbon neutral state.

It all adds up to a powerful environmental message to the billion Catholics around the world. But it's a message that challenges some longstanding views about human dominion over the Earth.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports from the Philippines.

JON HAMILTON: This is a story about what happens when the heavens and the Earth collide and who gets blamed.

The collision happened last year in November. A typhoon slammed into the Philippines near the city of Legazpi. The wind and rain were so intense, they sheared away the slopes of an 8,000-foot volcano.

CHARLITO VALDERRAMA: (Through translator) There was like a big bomb that came from the volcano. (Unintelligible) the gushing of the water.

HAMILTON: Torrents of water, volcanic mud and boulders as big as cars crashed down toward the ocean, leveling villages along the way. Charlito Valderrama is a farmer who used to live with his extended family in one of those villages. He's standing beside a rode that crosses a barren swath of rocks and gravel. He motions toward the spot where his house was.

VALDERRAMA: (Through translator) There were nine of them in the house. Only three survived. He got his wife after two days, and they found her body in another municipality, the nearby municipality in Santo Domingo.

HAMILTON: Nearly a thousand people died. Many bodies were never found. Valderrama says he knows why this disaster occurred.

VALDERRAMA: (Through translator) He said that it was the will of God. It was not because of man.

HAMILTON: That's a common sentiment among Catholics here, who make up more than 80 percent of the population. But it's a sentiment the church is trying to change.

The Vatican has been studying scientific evidence that man is contributing to global warming. It's a pressing issue, in part because climate change will be felt most intensely by the poor.

The Philippines is not only poor, it's vulnerable to extreme weather. In a warmer world, these islands are likely to see more flooding and more intense typhoons.

So Catholic leaders are asking people to do more to protect themselves and their planet.


HAMILTON: Lucilo Quiambao is the auxiliary Bishop of Legazpi. He's 75. And during the typhoon, he was in his church, caring for people.

Quiambao watched the pews come loose from the floor as the waters rose toward the stained-glass windows.

LUCILO QUIAMBAO: All those benches were floating. You see the Blessed Sacrament there. Just around two inches from that line was the water.

HAMILTON: He saved the organ by raising it up onto the altar. But records of baptisms, marriages and deaths just floated away.

The typhoon struck on a Thursday. At Mass on Sunday, Quiambao was surprised to see that the church was full.

QUIAMBAO: I thought people would be angry with God so they would not come, but no. They were - they came - most of them would say in thanksgiving because at least we are alive.

HAMILTON: But he felt they misunderstood God's role in the disaster. So he gave an unusual sermon.

QUIAMBAO: I enlightened the people that who is to be blamed for these calamities, we cannot blame God.

HAMILTON: After all, Quiambao says, it was God who brought order to all of creation.

QUIAMBAO: But it is man who made the disorder - who disordered everything and we are suffering the consequences of this order.

HAMILTON: And so it's up to man to fix it?

QUIAMBAO: It is up to man to fix it.

HAMILTON: Quiambao says the church is helping them do that.


HAMILTON: In the Philippines, the task falls to younger members of the clergy - like Father Jovic Lobrigo, a Franciscan.

Saint Francis is the patron saint of the environment. Father Jovic's church overlooks the area devastated by the mudslide, and he often speaks about what the church calls stewardship of the Earth.

JOVIC LOBRIGO: Yes, you are a primary creation and you have superiority above beings. But with it is responsibility of taking care of creation itself.

HAMILTON: Otherwise, he says, the Philippines will eventually have fewer trees and more typhoons. He tells people that truly understanding stewardship requires a long spiritual journey.


HAMILTON: Today though he's taking them on a physical journey.


HAMILTON: His congregation is helping to carry a statue of Mary from the ruins of an ancient church near the foot of the volcano to Father Jovic's church on the hill. Only the steeple of the old church remains above ground; the rest was buried by lava nearly two centuries ago.

Father Jovic says he understands why people blame God for volcanoes and typhoons.

LOBRIGO: For people, this is the simplest way of rationalizing what happened, because if you do that, then you don't blame anybody else but God. So even yourself is excused from it.

HAMILTON: And of course the Old Testament gives man dominion over the Earth.

Jovic says people in the Philippines abuse that power less than the residents of many other countries. Even so, he says, they need to do more for the Earth. And he sees signs that's happening.

The procession winds up past a camp for people who lost their homes in the typhoon. It's the last place you would expect to find anyone worrying about their impact on the environment. And yet some of them are.


HAMILTON: A woman named Josephina Baliktau has spent most of the past year living in a plywood shed covered with a tarp. But soon she'll have a new house made out of cement blocks.



HAMILTON: How do you stay so cheerful?

BALIKTAU: (Unintelligible) I'm so very happy because I am...


Unidentified Female #1: She's getting a new house.

Unidentified Female #2: That's why she's so happy.

BALIKTAU: (Filipino spoken)

Female #2: She's thanking God.

BALIKTAU: (Filipino spoken)

Female #2: She's thankful that nobody died in her family.

HAMILTON: But building houses like this one has meant cutting down trees to make room for roads and lots.

Sister Merceline Galeshia lives nearby.

MERCELINE GALESHIA: When we came here, there were many coconut trees around. And since we cannot build with the trees, the trees were cut down.

HAMILTON: Sister Merceline says the camp has decided to plant one new tree for each one lost.

GALESHIA: We had cut down 80 coconut trees and are saying, oh, it's something that we have to replace, or we have to do something about this, because we will be feeling the consequences of our decisions.

HAMILTON: The new trees are their way of making peace between the heavens and the Earth.


HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

AMOS: More about climate change at and in this month's National Geographic magazine. This is NPR News.

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