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'Running priest' in Philippines campaigns for underprivileged

MANILA--As the band of protesters approached a red stoplight, a cry went up from the priest leading them: “Run! Run! Run!”

The Rev. Robert Reyes jogged out into the clogged Manila street, raising his hand to the traffic — a small act of disobedience in a life punctuated with them. The group of about 40 followed him at a brisk clip, waving banners with slogans against the eviction of slum dwellers to make way for a new shopping mall.

“Running has a Pied Piper affect,” said Reyes, an activist priest with a buzz cut for whom running, either with others or alone on multi-day ultra-marathons, is a preferred form of protest. “It draws people in.”

For more than 30 years, Reyes, dubbed the “running priest” by the local media, has been a constant critic of corruption in the Philippines and often times the church itself, which he charges has abandoned its obligation to help the poor and sided with those in power in Asia's largest Roman Catholic nation.

He has spearheaded numerous campaigns, big and small. He's protested against the tobacco industry after his brother died of lung cancer, and blamed mining companies for environmental degradation. He's targeted corporate conglomerates, especially mall developers. He opposes the presence of American troops in the country.

Reyes, 59, says Pope Francis' emphasis on social justice has given him an extra shot of motivation. But his activism and outspokenness has apparently rankled church leaders.

When he was younger, Reyes fit into the church quite well under Manila's Cardinal Jaime Sin, who was a leading voice in the “people power” campaigns that led to the ouster of the U.S.-backed dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986, and later President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Reyes said his relationship soured irrevocably with church leaders in 2005, when he led a hunger strike in a Manila park against then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo over allegations she rigged elections. Asked by a television crew why the bishops were not supporting him, he answered that they had “betrayed God and betrayed the people.”

“After that, it was downhill as far as working for the church was concerned,” he said.

Immediate Response

Reyes claims church leaders refused to give him a position as a priest overseeing a parish unless he stopped protesting. So last year, he tried a different tack: After a year of silence and monastic life, he was ordained as a monk in the Franciscan order, which is more sympathetic to his activism.

The bishops' conference did not respond to requests for comment.

Reyes unashamedly courts the media, saying doing so is vital in getting the message of social justice to a wider audience. Critics charge he is a self-promoter who jumps from issue to issue, depending on whatever is getting attention.

His friends say his concern for the poor continues when the cameras aren't around.

“Someone will call up and say, 'My father is being taken to hospital, can you come?' and he will leave, right away, there is no question,” said Dennis Murphy, an American urban poor activist in Manila who has known Reyes for years. “It's something that comes natural to him. He feels that this is something he should do.”

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Father Reyes holds a megaphone for a speaker to protest the privatization of a government hospital for the construction of shopping malls in Quezon, northeast of Manila on Feb. 20. (AP)

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