The Catholic Church in the Philippines has said it will ultimately “cease to exist” if it remains silent about current threats to civil liberties.
The comments were made on Monday in response to remarks by President Rodrigo Duterte’s legal advisor, Salvador Panelo, who condemned as unconstitutional a recent letter by the Filipino Bishops’ Conference (CBCP) on the country’s controversial new anti-terrorism bill.
In a pastoral letter sent out on Sunday, the CBCP had strongly condemned the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. The bishops’ conference expressed “disbelief about the manner in which the contentious Anti-Terror Bill was fast-tracked and approved in both Houses of Congress while the whole country’s attention was focused on the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The letter was signed by the CBCP vice-president, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, who is standing in for the conference’s president, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, whilst the latter continues to recover from a recent stroke.
After drawing comparisons with the “threat to the basic freedoms and human rights” resulting from Hong Kong’s recent National Security Law, the bishops’ conference pointed to legal experts who had warned that the Philippines’ own new security laws are “inconsistent with our Constitution” and that they pose a “serious threat to the fundamental freedoms of all peaceful Filipinos.”
The bishops’ letter compared the “return of ‘warrantless detentions’ through this new law” to the “moves in 1972 that eventually led to the fall of democracy and the rise of a dictatorial regime that terrorized the country”, a reference to the imposition of martial law imposed on the country by former President Ferdinand Marcos.
But the bishops also said: “In the midst of this bleak political landscape, we draw consolation from the groups of lawyers and ordinary citizens that have filed petitions before the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of the newly signed law. Will the highest level of our Judiciary assert its independence, or will they, too, succumb to political pressure?”
In response to the letter, Salvador Panelo, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, said that the political comment included in the bishops’ letter itself “appears to have” violated the Constitution, citing the constitutional mandate for the separation of church and state in support of his view. Panelo dismissed the letter’s own constitutional concerns, saying that it “parrots the detractors’ favored false narrative that [the Anti-Terror Bill] is violative of the Constitution.”
A spokesperson for the CBCP, Fr Jerome Secillano, then gave an interview explaining that the bishops’ conference “cannot just be quiet about all these things,” saying that if “the Church does not anymore speak about all these matters when in fact there are wrongs being committed left and right, then we cease to exist as a Church.”
On the issue of the constitutional provision for the separation of Church and State, Fr Secillano said that it only “means that the State is not actually going to put up an official religion” and that “state funds should not be used to fund a particular religion”. But he added that “it doesn’t actually bar Church leaders, priests, bishops or any religious for that matter to express their political opinions.”
Fr Secillano gave his interview to ABS-CBN, after the media network recently lost its bid for franchise renewal and was banned from airing on television and radio. The bishops’ letter had earlier denounced the “chilling effect” of the government’s decision to close the country’s biggest broadcast network and described it as part of a wider “pattern of intimidation” created by the Duterte regime.
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