Has President Duterte emboldened death squads to target clergy?
Fr Richmond Nilo was standing beside the altar preparing for Mass on the evening of Sunday, June 10, when two men shot him dead. The Philippine Daily Inquirer published a gruesome blurred image of Fr Nilo’s body lying in a pool of blood on the white-tiled chapel floor in Zaragoza.
He was the third priest murdered in the Philippines since last December, when motorcycle riders gunned down Fr Marcelito Paez as he drove home. Fr Mark Ventura had just finished celebrating Mass when he was killed by masked assailants in April.
The Philippines has the third-largest Catholic population in the world after Brazil and Mexico. Why is it so dangerous for priests that some 200 of them have applied for gun permits (see Kipper Williams cartoon)? I spoke to a foreign missionary priest who recently left the country after more than 40 years there. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told me that parts of the Philippines have long been perilous for priests. But he noted that the three most recent victims were all “working for justice” and that was “probably a factor”.
He argued that Rodrigo Duterte (pictured) had created a toxic atmosphere since his election as president in 2016, with his “war on drugs” leaving 20,000 people dead. “The president is a dangerous and truly ignorant man,” the priest said, “with little self-respect and none whatever for his office. He has given clear signals to police and the military from time to time that they may kill ‘undesirables’. I would go so far as to describe him as an evil man because of the killings associated with him.”
Another priest, who still works in the Philippines and asked not to be named for safety reasons, thinks the country is now “definitely a more dangerous place for priests”, especially for those involved in human rights work and anti-mining campaigns. Duterte, he said, “has emboldened his paid death squads that they can target priests and lay human rights workers and kill them with impunity”.
The authorities dismiss critical reports as “fake news”, the priest explained, so media exposure won’t stop the violence. “The only thing that will help and protect us is international sanctions against individual officials who are his hardcore, fanatical supporters and his business cronies,” he said.
Duterte dismisses suggestions that he is indirectly responsible for the priests’ murders. In response to Fr Ventura’s killing, for example, he waved around a chart claiming that the priest had engaged in affairs with four women, implying that he had been killed by an angry husband. The Church accused the president of spreading “unfounded rumours and malicious insinuations”.
But Duterte is seemingly immune to episcopal criticism, which he fends off aggressively. The only credible threat to his power comes not from the Church, but from the economy. Inflation is rising, the peso is falling and the Philippines has its largest current account deficit for decades. If Duterte fails to stabilise the country’s finances then he may finally alienate his power base and fail to be re-elected in 2022.
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