Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said the predominately Catholic nation’s prayers were answered when three church bells seized by American troops more than a century ago returned to their home in Eastern Samar province on Saturday.
The United States on Tuesday returned the bells to Manila, 117 years after American troops looted them from the Central Philippine town of Balangiga.
The bells were displayed briefly in the capital city before being airlifted to the central Philippines Friday in time for the grand ceremony in Balangiga, an impoverished fishing and farming community.
Joseph Felter, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said the bells’ return reaffirmed the strength of the allies’ relationship moving forward.
Felter said it was a “gesture of respect” from the U.S. government that the bells had been turned over in what he said was a “solemn and joyful occasion.”
He noted that it is time for the nations “to heal this divisive wound that strained our relationship for so long.”
Duterte, who earlier in the week said the return of the bells was a collective effort and not his alone, said Saturday was a “time to be truly sentimental as we welcome back our Balangiga bells.”
“It has been 117 years since these bell were taken away from us. Yet we never lost hope that someday these treasures will be returned to where they belong,” the president said, adding that the getting them home was a “long and tedious process.”
“The bells are returned and it was really because of the fervent prayers of the entire Filipino nation,” the president said. “Nobody but nobody can claim a singular credit for the generous act of the Americans. The bells are returned, the credit goes to the American people and to the Filipino people. Period.”
U.S. troops in 1901 were sent to Balangiga to avenge the deaths of 48 soldiers who were killed in a surprise attack by Filipino guerrillas. The troops overran the town under instructions to turn it into a “howling wilderness.”
They later stole the church’s three bronze bells which were displayed at U.S. military bases in Wyoming and South Korea.
Some U.S. veterans groups and lawmakers had opposed the bells’ return because they had symbolized the sacrifices of fallen American troops.
The Philippines has been pushing for their return since the 1990s and Duterte continued the effort. He used the bells and past examples of American atrocities in response to Washington questioning his drug war.
Duterte also signaled a diplomatic policy shift, saying he preferred to build closer ties to Washington’s traditional rivals China and Russia and warned of kicking out the last U.S. military advisers in the country.
Duterte’s tone softened when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president and the two leaders later agreed to the return.