Kids rescued from cult

Cebu Daily News, Philippines/Mar. 26, 2008

Cebu City, Philippines - They holed up inside a mountain cottage for five days in Carmen town, starting Holy Thursday to wait for the "end of the world."

Members of the Dios Amahan cult, who brought their children along to await the "final judgment," had to be pulled out of the house by policemen on Tuesday, ending almost a day of negotiation.

At least 24 persons, 10 of them children, were rescued.

A worried father, accompanied by policemen, came to rescue his children, especially his one-year-old son, after his wife, the leader of the cult, refused to release them.

After hours of pleading, Edilberto Sayson, 43, ripped a hole in the amakan wall of the cottage where his children and 21 other members had been staying since Holy Thursday.

Personnel of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in Carmen later took custody of the 10 children while the adults were brought to the police station for questioning.

Jessica, a 39-year-old homemaker, said they don't base their beliefs on the Bible or revere religious icons although they do make the sign of the cross like Catholics.

Cebu City Councilor Gerardo Carillo, DSWD-7 legal counsel, said the children would undergo medical checkup by a team from the Department of Health in Central Visayas (DOH-7).

He said he would wait for the report from the municipal social worker and the finding of the DOH before deciding on what legal action to take against Jessica and her group.

Jessica heads the Dios Amahan, which was founded in the 1990s in Mandaue City by her brother-in-law Billy Robusto whom members described as the "best faith healer."

When Billy died, wife Eleonor was expected to take over. But Jessica assumed as head of the group because the members would readily follow her.

Last week, said Jessica, she received a "message from God" that the end of the world was near and that in order to be saved, the members had to stay inside the cottage and pray.

The house was owned by the cult founder Billy in Sitio (district) Bito, Barangay (village) Baring, Carmen, about 41.3 kilometers north of Cebu City.

Jessica and her three children, aged 17, 14 and one, arrived in Sitio Bito, an interior village located four kilometers from the main road, about 9 a.m. on March 19, Holy Wednesday.

Edilberto, an operator of a printing press, stayed behind in Mandaue City because he had work that day.

But Jessica warned him that he had to be inside the house before 3 a.m. of Holy Thursday. Otherwise, he could not get inside the house and would not be able to see his family, said Edilberto.

He said he arrived at Sitio Bito about 12:30 a.m. of Holy Thursday. His wife allowed him to get inside the house.

They stayed inside the one-room cottage which was about eight meters by four meters wide.

Edilberto said there were 10 children, including his sons, and 14 adults, including Jessica, Eleonor and their brother Angelo.

Also inside the room was a friend from Ginatilan town who worked as a janitor in a hospital in Cebu City and his family.

Jessica, however, did not allow her parents Milagros and Pablo Pasaje and two other members to get inside the house because they were not able to memorize the prayer of "Dios Amahan."

Milagros said she was once a member of the group when Billy was the leader. But since he died, she added she noticed that the policy of the group had changed.

"Dili na gyod maayo ang panghuna-huna sa akong anak, maayo pa man ang iyang sitwastyon una pa sila misod sa balay pero karon lain na kaayo ang iyang pang huna-huna (My daughter is no longer in a proper state of mind. It was better before she got inside the house unlike now)," Milagros said.

Inside the house, the group prayed every three hours starting 6 a.m.

On Good Friday, Edilberto decided to leave because he had to report for work. When he returned to the house in the evening of Easter Sunday, his wife would not let him in. He was told that he was afflicted by "the sins of the world."

He pleaded with his wife but Jessica refused to release even their youngest son. On Monday, Edilberto went to the police.

Policemen led by Chief Inspector Carlos Reyes Jr. went to the house to plead with Jessica to release the children.

Angelo, speaking through the amakan wall told the police that the members, including Edilberto's two older sons, were not being held against their will.

The two were even angry at their father and called him "Judas Escariote."

Negotiations continued until Tuesday when DSWD personnel headed by Maricho Maningo arrived to help convince Jessica to release the children.

The room was foul smelling and humid because both the door and the window were shut.

About 11:30 a.m. Jessica allowed the children to briefly go out of the house to show to the DSWD personnel and the police that they were not harmed. The children went back inside the house about an hour later.

Edilberto, who returned to the area at 2:30 p.m., again pleaded to his wife to release his one-year-old son. He kept knocking on the door until Jessica, Eleonor and Angelo went out of the house to face him.

They said he could no longer get inside because he was deemed unworthy after leaving the house on Good Friday. But they told him that he could visit his children occasionally.

About 3 p.m., the three went inside the house, apparently to pray.

Edilberto did not stop. He continued knocking on the door and calling out the names of his sons.

When he heard his one-year-old son crying, he ripped open the bamboo walling of the cottage to get a look inside.

The square-meter hole was just enough to expose the people inside.

Eleonor and Jessica started shouting angrily while others dared the police to get inside the house.

The two sons of Edilberto threw water on his face.

"Salamat nga imo ming gi-pa eskwela, pero di na namo ma-antos ang kalisod sa kalibutan (Thank you for sending us to school but we could no longer bear the sufferings of the world)," said his 17-year-old son.

Some members threw a container of urine at the policemen.

After an hour of negotiations, the police forced their way in to rescue the children.

They found cooked rice and noodles on the table. Beside it were two containers, one full of urine and the other of human feces.

The police were able to bring out the children and the adults, who no longer resisted.

Jessica later told reporters that they were only waiting for the message from "the Most High (labaw maka-gagahom)" because judgment day for the living and the dead is almost near.

"Nakita namo sa palibot nga ang dautan nag libot-libot aron ilogon ang among gi-ampingan nga pag-ampo maong wa mi mag-gawas (We see that evil is lurking around to take our prayers. That is why we did not get out)," she added.

All 24 of them were brought to the DSWD center in the poblacion (town).

There the children were given bread and water. The adults, on the other hand, were taken to the police station for questioning.

The DSWD-7 said it would file child abuse charges against Jessica if investigation showed that the children's health was affected by their five-day ordeal.

Councilor Carillo said they could not do anything with the adult members of the cult if nobody files a complaint.

He cited the freedom to exercise one's religion as long as their actions don't violate the law.

"They are free to worship even to Satan (as long as they will not harm the children)," he said.

With reports from Correspondent Chris Ligan

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