Manila, Dec. 10, 2018: The office of Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial Philippine president, on Dec. 6 was forced to play down remarks he had made about killing bishops, claiming it was only “hyperbole” and not a genuine threat.
In a speech to local government officials, Duterte, who has a running feud with the influential Catholic Church over its criticisms of his drugs war, lashed out again, calling it “the most hypocritical institution” and denouncing priests as “useless.”
“These bishops, kill them, those fools are good for nothing. All they do is criticize,” he said, according to the Rappler news site.
Salvador Panelo, the presidential spokesman, later clarified to reporters that the president’s provocative statement was borne out of frustration that his efforts to improve the country were being under-appreciated.
“I think that’s only hyperbole on the part of the president. We should be getting used to this president. He makes certain statements for dramatic effect,” he said.
“The president, just like any ordinary human being, is upset when the good things that he does for this country and not even appreciated by people who are supposed to support it, like the Church,” Panelo added.
Protests against the drugs war in the Caloocan area of Manila
Protests against the drugs war in the Caloocan area of Manila.
However, the country’s Commission on Human Rights slammed his statements against religious leaders as “gravely alarming”, warning that they could embolden violence against government critics, reported the Philippine Star.
“Churches and priests… work directly with communities and families who continue to suffer the many forms of human rights violations allegedly stemming from the government’s drug campaign,” said Jacqueline Ann de Guia, the CHR spokesperson.
“Instead of calling them useless, the government must take their concerns as valid challenges from the ground and as means to improve, rather than degrade protection of human rights of all,” she added.
An estimated 90 per cent of the Philippines 100-million-strong population identify as Catholic and the Church has played a central role at times of political upheaval, including during the 1986 “people power” revolution that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
It initially refrained from criticizing the war on drugs launched by Mr Duterte in 2016, but began to campaign against it last year as the death toll mounted, particularly among the poor.
Based on official police records, at least 4,000 drugs dealers and users have been killed, but human rights groups allege the death toll is three times higher, with many of the victims, some innocent bystanders, targeted by gun-wielding assassins on motorbikes.
Duterte has been incensed by the Church’s stand against his drugs campaign, most recently focusing his ire on Manila Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, whose innercity Caloocan parish has been badly hit by vigilante killings.
The president accused the bishop of having links to drugs and stealing church donations, reportedly also threatening to cut off his head.
Bishop David denied the charges, urging people to pray for their leader, who was “a very sick man.”
In an interview with The Telegraph last year, the bishop admitted he was sometimes fearful he would be targeted over his strong stance against the drugs war.
“Who would not be afraid? I’m just a human being. I know how they operate,” he said.
“Sometimes we’re in a car and the car stops in the middle of traffic and then you have people in motorcycles riding in tandem coming up the side of you. You get a bit queasy, thinking if this man has a gun that could be the end of me,” he said.
Bishop David’s fears are not unfounded. Three Catholic priests have been killed since December last year, although their murderers’ motives have not been established.
Their deaths have raised alarm among church leaders over “a culture of impunity.”
“They are killing our flock. They are killing us, the shepherds. They are killing our faith. They are cursing our church,” Catholic leaders said in a strongly-worded statement earlier this year, urging Duterte to refrain from “verbal prosecution” that could embolden more crimes.