Philippine bishops: Churches should not allow new ivory images

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine bishops’ conference has urged church leaders to keep new ivory out of churches around the country.

Workers gather elephant tusks seized from illegal shipments at the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau-Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Manila, Philippines, in 2013. The Philippine bishops’ conference has urged church leaders to keep new ivory out of churches around the country. (CNS photo | Dennis M. Sabangan, EPA)

“I appeal to my brother bishops of the Philippines to prohibit the clerics from blessing any new statue, image or object of devotion made or crafted from such material as ivory or similar body parts of endangered or protected (species), nor shall such new statues or images be used as objects of veneration in any of our churches,” Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, conference president, said in the pastoral letter signed on behalf of the bishops.

A 2012 National Geographic investigation found that the Philippines was one of the entry points for the illegal African ivory trade. The journalist interviewed a priest from the central city of Cebu, who gave him pointers on how to smuggle ivory into the country.

The bishops’ Nov. 4 letter made a push for the spiritual aspect of respecting God’s creations and the roles they play in the scheme of nature. It lamented that, in the Philippines, endangered species are “hardly cared for,” and expressed concern that, worldwide, more and more species are going extinct.

“No matter the beauty of a work of art, it cannot justify the slaughter of wildlife, the use of endangered organic forms and lending a seal of approval to the threat posed to biodiversity by poachers and traffickers,” the letter said. It added, however, that ivory images that had existed for centuries or had been in use since before the letter was released should be “safeguarded, and may remain in use for purposes of devotion and in recognition of their historical value.”

Archbishop Villegas told Catholic News Service that the pastoral letter was part of a program of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to highlight sections of the pope’s encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, African elephants numbered about 3 million to 5 million in the past century, but rampant killings for ivory in the 1980s decreased their numbers by 100,000 per year. Today, there are 470,000 African elephants and, despite an international ban on ivory poaching, the animal advocacy group said thousands continue to be poached.