MANILA - Church bells seized from the Philippines by U.S. troops as war trophies over a century ago were returned on Tuesday in a bid to turn the page on a difficult chapter between the historical allies.
Giving back the three so-called “Bells of Balangiga” meets a decades-old demand from the former U.S. colony at a time when the two nations’ ties have been rattled by President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China.
“Returning these bells is the right thing to do,” U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim said at a sober handover ceremony on a Manila airfield, where a cheer went up when the bells were pulled from wooden crates.
The bells will be sent back this week to the church in the central town of Balangiga where they were looted by U.S. soldiers avenging a surprise attack that killed 48 of their comrades on Sept. 28, 1901.
In reprisal, the U.S. commander Jacob Smith ordered the surrounding island of Samar be turned into a “howling wilderness,” resulting in the slaughter of thousands of Filipinos and Balangiga’s razing.
The return of the bronze bells has been divisive. Some U.S. veterans and lawmakers see them as a tribute to fallen American troops, while the Philippines hails them as a symbol of its struggle for independence.
Two of the bells had been on display in Wyoming and the other in South Korea until being restored and flown to a Manila air base Tuesday aboard an American military cargo plane.
Manila’s push for the bells’ repatriation began in the 1990s and has had backing from Philippine presidents as well as from the Catholic Church and historians, but also supporters in the U.S.
Duterte, 73, bluntly called out Washington in a 2017 speech — where Kim was in the audience — “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are not yours.”
Within months of winning the presidency in mid-2016, he signaled his intention to split with the Philippines’ former colonial master and end a standoff with Beijing over the disputed South China Sea.
Salvador Panelo, the president’s spokesman, claimed a lot of the credit for Duterte, pointing to his “strong political will.”
However, experts said the process had been complicated. “No single president can claim credit to it,” said Francis Gealogo, history professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. “The credit should be given to the Filipino people who campaigned vigorously and actively.”
A key factor was also major American veterans’ associations, including the largest group, Veterans of Foreign Wars, dropping their opposition to the bells being given back.