By Eimor P. Santos, CNN Philippines
One of the three historic Balangiga bells tolled in its hometown for the first time in 117 years, as the President rang it in the turnover ceremony on Saturday.
President Rodrigo Duterte raised a clenched fist as he rang one of the bells seven times, drawing cheers from spectators at the Balangiga town’s auditorium in Eastern Samar province. He appeared to have kissed it before ringing it. The much-awaited sound of the Balangiga bells ringing was heard past 5 p.m.
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“The long wait is over,” Duterte said in his speech, adding that he shared the “happiness and joy” of the people of Balangiga celebrating the bells’ return.
“I am sure that our ancestors are celebrating with us here on this remarkable victory and that does not only bring back the glory of the town of Balangiga but also contributes in the full restoration of our dignity as a Filipino,” he added.
Duterte said he trusts that the locals, as well as the entire country, “will ensure the protection of these gems and will continue to preserve and promote our culture and history.”
Historians believe one of the bells signaled the attack the Filipinos launched against American troops stationed in Balangiga town on September 28, 1901. The attack, which killed 48 American soldiers, was reportedly in retaliation for oppressive treatment that Filipinos received from the foreign soldiers. American troops retaliated, destroying the town and killing thousands of Filipino soldiers and locals in what came to be known as the Balangiga Massacre. The American soldiers seized all three bells from the Balangiga Church, and a 1557 cannon as “war booty.”
Duterte on Saturday witnessed the official handover of the turnover certificate of the Balangiga bells from the United States Deputy State of Mission John Law to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and from Lorenzana to Balangiga Mayor Randy GrazaI.
The President reiterated that no single person could claim credit for the repatriation of the Balangiga bells. “The bells are returned… the credit goes to the American people and to the Filipino people,” he said.
Law in his speech recalled that Duterte “made a forceful and passionate call for the return of the Balangiga bells.”
“We heard, we listened and we recognized that returning the bells to the Philippines was quite simply the right thing to do,” Law said.
Duterte called for the return of the bells during his 2017 State of the Nation Address, resurrecting a decades-old fight for their repatriation. The handover was made possible after U.S. President Donald Trump signed the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, enabling its Defense Department to return the bells.
Duterte and the Church
Despite recent tirades against the Catholic Church, Duterte on Saturday kept his speech short and expletive-free.
He also shook hands with officials of the Catholic Church led by Papal Nuncio to the Philippines Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, whom he also acknowledged in his speech. He called Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines President and Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles as his “personal spiritual guidance counselor.”
Meanwhile, Borongan Bishop Crispin Varquez assured the people “that we will return the bells to their original purpose and care for and cherish them.”
“Rightly used, the bells call us to pray and worship God,” he added.
He earlier stressed that all three bells should stay in their home church – the Parish Church of St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr in Balangiga town, within the Diocese of Borongan – amid a pending Senate resolution to have one displayed at the National Museum.
The bells will be tolled once more in the church Saturday night, followed by a minute of silence to pray for those who persihed in the bloody Balangiga massacre in 1901.
The bells will then be temporarily installed in the landscaped garden area at the right side of the church for the public to see before transferring them to one of the belfry.
CNN Philippines’ Carolyn Bonquin contributed to this report.