“If it is a crime to love the poor and support them in their struggle against injustice, then I am ready to face the firing squad,” Fr. Zacarias Agatep wrote in 1980 just after his release from four months of imprisonment by the martial law government. Two years later he did give up his life in the pursuit of this belief.
Fellow seminarians remember Agatep as a serious-minded person, whom they called Apo Kari. (“Apo” is the Ilokano term of respect for elders, leaders, or persons in positions of authority.)
Agatep spent his summers as a seminarian helping poor families in their farms. After his ordination in 1964, he took up parish duties for a short while in San Esteban town. Then he served as fulltime chaplain of the Northern Luzon chapter of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF). Working with farmers in the towns of Sta. Cruz, Sta. Lucia, Salcedo and Galimuyod, he helped organize cooperatives, raised awareness about land reform, and campaigned for the reduction of land rent.
But when, in 1973, the FFF leadership supported the Marcos regime’s campaign for the ratification of a martial law constitution, the priest campaigned among FFF members to boycott the referendum called for this purpose. He left the organization and returned to parish work in Caoayan, taking up the cause of poor tobacco farmers, and speaking up against foreign and local elite control of the tobacco industry.
Later he joined the Christians for National Liberation and began to secretly support the fight against the dictatorial regime.
He was serving as parish priest in Caoayan when arrested on 4 September 1980 and charged with subversion and illegal possession of firearms. He was first taken to Camp Diego in Ilocos Sur, moved to Camp Dangwa in Benguet, and finally to Camp Bagong Diwa (Bicutan Rehabilitation Center) in Metro Manila. All through those four months he continued to minister to his fellow prisoners.
He was released on December 24, 1980, as part of the regime’s preparations for the visit of Pope John Paul II. In a letter afterwards to President Marcos, his provincemate, Agatep protested his imprisonment as a frameup. “If this is the kind of justice we get from the so-called guardians of the New Society, then there is no wonder why there are some people who go to the hills to fight the government.”
Some time after, a reward for Agatep’s rearrest was posted by the authorities. At the age of 46, on October 11, 1982, the priest was killed together with Alfredo Cesar, a former deacon who had been assisting him. The military claimed that the two died in an armed encounter with constabulary soldiers, but many doubted this. Agatep’s body showed that he had been shot four times from behind.
Many religious groups denounced the deaths of Agatep and Cesar. A memorial mass was held for them at the chapel of the Daughters of St. Paul in Manila, sponsored by a newly-formed Committee for the Protection of Church People’s Rights. Twenty-seven priests, Filipinos as well as foreigners, concelebrated, and about 500 persons, including Protestants, attended the ecumenical rites.