Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte harbors a no-holds-barred hostility toward the Catholic Church and he’s been hurling barbs at it as he stumps for candidates in the upcoming midterm election.
“Almost 90 percent of the priests are homosexual,” he has declared. He also insinuated that others have secret relationships with women.
He cast bishops as “greedy” and urged people to “rob” and even murder them.
“These bishops, kill them, those fools are good for nothing. All they do is criticize,” he said in December, prompting titters from his audience, and alarm from the clergy.
Duterte has said he was sexually abused as a boy by a priest, which some Filipinos believe may partly explain his strong antagonism toward the Catholic Church, the country’s largest religious institution by far.
The president’s chief legal counsel and spokesman, Salvador Panelo, says Duterte’s anti-clergy tirades should not be taken literally. “These are jokes. These are hyperbole. These are said in jest,” Panelo told NPR.
However, the church is not laughing. At least five bishops and priests say they received death threats in recent weeks. Each one has been a vocal critic of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, arguing that it has targeted the urban poor and left drug lords largely untouched.
Duterte’s anti-drug operations killed 5,281 people from the time they began in July 2016 through February 2019, according to Derrick Carreon, spokesman for the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Human Rights Watch says that figure does not include nearly 23,000 others who police say were killed by unidentified gunmen or vigilantes, widely considered extrajudicial killings. Duterte denies involvement in summary executions and taunts human rights defenders with vows to widen the war on illegal drugs, which he says are making the country “insane.”
Albert Alejo, a priest and social anthropologist who teaches at Ateneo de Manila University, says his work protecting whistleblowers in the drug war has put him at risk. He says he began receiving death threats in mid-February in the form of “incessant” profanity-filled phone calls, which later became invective-filled text messages.
“Big capital letters, as if to scream, and laden with ‘son of a b****’ … saying that he’ll kill me. … It’s shocking,” says the 61-year-old priest and academic. One text message warned clergymen to “prepare” for their “wake.”
Alejo has no car or personal security. He travels on foot, hopping from bus to jeepney. He has restricted his movements and varied his routine. Alejo joined fellow clerics in declining an offer of protection from the Philippine National Police, saying it would be “ironic” to accept security from an institution they have doubts about.
“Right now, we’re vulnerable,” he says, speaking of targeted clergy.
Alejo first learned about Duterte during his Jesuit training in Davao City, on the country’s southernmost island of Mindanao, where Duterte constructed his strongman image. Human rights advocates including Alejo say Davoa became the “safest” city in the country — by killing suspected criminals and drug addicts.
Alejo says the tough-on-crime approach swept Duterte to the presidency in 2016, when he scaled up the drug war, going after small-time peddlers and users of narcotics, mainly meth or shabu as it is popularly known in the Philippines.
“Mostly very poor guys, in rubber slippers, riding in tricycles. It’s really very painful,” Alejo says of the fatal victims.
Arturo Lascañas, a police officer from Davao City, put a face to a gruesome rumor that had long swirled: He testified to the Philippine Senate in 2017 that he had led a death squad under then-Mayor Duterte and that he personally killed 200 people.
“All the killings that we committed in Davao City, whether they were buried or thrown in the sea, were paid for by Mayor Duterte,” Lascañas said at the time.
The former police officer had previously denied the allegations. But Lascañas confessed he had killed two of his own brothers, and the torment from all the killing compelled him to ultimately come forward.
Duterte denies permitting any death squad as president or during his 22 years as mayor of Davao. With Alejo’s help, Lascañas fled to a safe haven overseas. (NPR is not disclosing the location for safety reasons.) Alejo says his work is now finding political sanctuary for such witnesses.
“Those who can reveal the truth,” Alejo says, “the dark stinking truth behind this whole administration.”
Flavie Villanueva, a priest who runs the St. Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center that serves the poor and the homeless in Manila, says he has been under government surveillance since he held a forum on extrajudicial killings 2 1/2 years ago. He has now received death threats. Closed-circuit TV footage has picked up masked men skulking around his center.
Villanueva notes that three priests were killed in the span of six months last year, and that none of the cases has been solved.
“One might ask, ‘What does that got to do with Duterte?’ My point simply is he created a culture that it’s OK to kill,” he says.
Villanueva says Duterte’s clergy bashing — unique among Philippine presidents — “has polarized the church.”
Villanueva used to use drugs. Now he ministers to relatives of victims of the drug war, a heavy crackdown that he says is proof the president “has loose screws in his head.”
Other priests, nuns and laity are helping the drug war’s traumatized families, but quietly. Many more, says Villanueva, choose not to get involved for “fear of putting their life on the line.”
In January, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines apologized for not being more vocal against the government attacks on drug users, the church and its teachings.
“What’s left to be seen” in the change of heart, says Villanueva, “is that collective voice on how to specifically respond to the growing evil.”
Alejo says, from the top down, the clergy has been intimidated into silence.
“Worse than that — some bishops, some priests and even some sisters felt that maybe we should give this guy a chance,” referring to Duterte, saying, “who are we to judge the way he tries to cleanse the society,” Alejo says.
For President Duterte, the church’s international sexual abuse scandals provide license to condemn it for hypocrisy, a criticism that many Filipinos believe is legitimate.
Author and sociologist Walden Bello says the church is “on the defensive.” It is prevented from taking a strong principled stand “because of the fear that Duterte could start naming names” — names that could include clergy suspected of having secret wives or of sexually abusing children. “It could be a very, very lurid process that could cost the church a great deal of moral legitimacy.”
But Alejo says drug war killings are the moral issue of the day. And despite its own sins in the sex abuse scandal, the church must find its voice, even as it is being maligned.
“I accept the fact that we are wounded but at the same time we must be healers,” Alejo says. “We cannot survive just keeping our mouths shut, and playing safe.”
Alejo says that with the drug war entering its third year, “We have had enough and the church should be waking up by this time.”
In a country where more than 80 percent identify as Catholic, the priest says the institution of the church has a reach, and an obligation, like no other.
“Being the most capable of responding to this crisis, the church has the heaviest burden and responsibility for finding out the truth.”
As for his own predicament, Alejo says, “I’m not a very pious guy. I mean some people want to be martyred.” He lets out an impish laugh. “I don’t want to be a martyr.”