No stranger to persecution, the Church braves Duterte's threats and tirades

Christian Deiparine - Philstar.com
No stranger to persecution, the Church braves Duterte's threats and tirades
This 2017 photo shows relatives holding photos of victims of extrajudicial killings under Duterte's anti-illegal drug campaign. Priests join with a sign that says: "You shall not kill!"
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman

MANILA, Philippines — The Catholic Church in the Philippines has always had complicated relations with government, but in the Duterte years, it found itself speaking out on the "drug war" and consoling victims' families.

That meant facing the ire of a firebrand for a president, braving insults and threats, and surviving sedition charges. 

One would be mistaken to think, however, that the centuries-old institution in the country is a stranger to persecution. But perhaps no administration after the dark days of Martial Law went so much on the offensive with the church as that of Rodrigo Duterte's.

Against the grain and against the tide, the Catholic Church has endured difficulties in Duterte's term. A new leader at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines suggests church officials will not stop speaking out in the president's crucial and remaining months in office.

'You shall not kill'

Duterte's first year began with a vocal leader at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, whose strongly-worded remarks on the drug campaign reverberated across the Philippines, where many identify as Catholic.

Government put the number of those killed in "drug war" operations at 8,000, but rights groups said the toll could be as high as 30,000.

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas called the killings a "reign of terror." The church, he said, knows the drug problem should be stopped, but not at a great cost of lives.

Fast forward to 2021, Duterte's human rights record is not something to be proud of, said Fr. Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of the CBCP's public affairs committee.

"Because many were killed, you can't boast of this to your people or to the world," he said in Filipino at a July 21 roundtable with journalist Melo Acuna. "This is actually something the public and other institutions should be alarmed about."

Archbishop Romulo Valles, from Duterte's hometown Davao, succeeded Villegas in 2017. While he took on a more restrained approach towards government, his second-in-command then continued to speak out on the "drug war".

In Duterte's final year, he meets another outspoken critic of his bloody campaign. Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David will assume the top CBCP post by December this year.

'You shall not take the Lord's name in vain'

The president, who came to be known for his vulgar language, had sought to retaliate against the church for criticizing his policies. He called God "stupid," and mocked the Bible story of creation and the Catholic doctrine of original sin.

"When he cursed God for that matter," Secillano said in mixed English and Filipino, "I don't think that showed respect for the Catholic faith. When priests get threats and are killed, I don't think that is respect."

As Duterte continued to rail against the church, clergymen in 2019 reported receiving death threats. Three priests were killed during the Duterte presidency: Fr. Marcelito Paez in December 2017, Fr. Mark Ventura in April 2018, and Fr. Richmond Nilo in June of the same year.

Despite the president's disparaging remarks, Malacañang deflected the blame pinned on Duterte.

Villegas had a strong message in a June 2018 homily on the insults: "For more than 2,000 years, men and women of violence have taunted and cursed God. Those who have cursed [and] belittled God are now dusts. And God is still God."

'You shall not bear false witness'

In its drive against perceived plots against the government, state agents accused Catholic bishops of attempting to overthrow the government.

The Philippine National Police in 2019 filed sedition raps against David, Villegas, Cubao Bishop Honesto Ongtioco, and retired Novaliches bishop Teodoro Bacani Jr.

Also included were ex-education secretary Bro. Armin Luistro along with Fathers Albert Alejo, Robert Reyes and Flaviano Villanueva.

The military has also linked members of the clergy to the armed communist movement.

David said there is reason to be afraid when incidents of red-tagging become the trend. "It sort of brings back to memory the times when we were under authoritarian rule."

The justice department in February 2020 cleared the bishops, Luistro, and Reyes of the charges. But the case went on for Alejo and Villanueva, who both pleaded not guilty in October last year.

'You shall not steal'

Secillano stressed that getting rid of corruption in government is a serious concern for the Catholic Church.

He cited many forms of assistance through the institution's social service programs for the poor. "When you steal, you take those intended for the needy," the CBCP official added in Filipino.

Duterte's campaign centered on eliminating drugs, crime, and corruption in the country in three to six months. He later on admitted that all these are problems that would go beyond his term.

Secillano believes the president failed to deliver on his promises. As the next election nears, he urged the public to be more discerning of candidates' promises which he said may be "too good to be true."

"The Filipino people fell for it during the 2016 elections," he added. They thought President Duterte is going to deliver on his promises because the way he said it was very convincing."


President Duterte steps down in June 2022. Who his successor will be and what his plans are after that are another thing.

But as his administration nears its end, Secillano offered a blunt assessment: "I don't think it was marked by respect," he said of the relationship between church and government under Duterte.

He added that the church would surely continue being vocal, especially as the country chooses its new leaders next year.

"There will still be church people who will do the calling out," Secillano said in Filipino. "They will not allow wrongdoings or abuse in government to just pass.

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