Philippine Catholic priests: ‘They are killing us’

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    Nilo was preparing for a church service on Sunday when he was killed by unidentified gunmen [Ezra Acayan/Al Jazeera]

    The killings of three Catholic priests since December have raised alarm in the Philippines, with the church and political leaders condemning the continued “culture of impunity” in the country.

    “We should be alarmed,” Fr Jerome Secillano, a spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said in an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday. 

    “Killing is a form of violence. We do not want violence to permeate in our society. We want a violence-free society. We want our citizens to be freely roaming around, with a sense of security and safety.”

    Richmond Nilo was the latest member of the Catholic clergy to be killed by unidentified gunmen on Sunday, as he was preparing for a church service in the northern province of Nueva Ecija.

    While he does not see any pattern of Catholic priests being targeted, Secillano said the continued “culture of impunity” paved the way for the killing of Nilo and other priests.

    “The church has been telling [authorities] in the past that we should put a stop to the killings. The killings should not have a place in our society, even if the ones being killed are considered [by the government] as the ‘scumbags’ in our society,” he said.

    Catholic leaders in the district where Nilo served as a priest also issued a strongly-worded statement against the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has left thousands of people dead.

    “Are you still saying this is the best government we ever had? They are killing our flock. They are killing us, the shepherds. They are killing our faith. They are cursing our Church,” the letter, signed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas and other senior church leaders, read.

    Villegas also urged Duterte “to stop the verbal persecution” against the Catholic Church, “because such attacks can unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests”.

    ‘We don’t hate him’

    In December 2017, a 72-year-old priest was shot in Nueva Ecija, just hours after facilitating the release of a political prisoner. In April, a 37-year-old priest, who advocated for ethnic minorities and against mining, was killed in the northern province of Cagayan.

    A fourth priest, who had served as chaplain for the Philippine police, survived an assassination attempt outside of the capital Manila earlier this month.

    On Wednesday, opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros filed a resolution calling for an investigation into the killings, to bring “accountability and justice” to the attackers and stop the killings, not only of Catholic clergy members but also civilians.

    “It’s a question that is bothering people’s minds. Are priests also being targeted now? Are these attacks borne out of President Duterte’s repeated verbal attacks against the church?” Hontiveros said in a public forum.

    Hontiveros said the president has a “habit” of lashing out at his critics, including the Catholic Church, which had been outspoken in opposing the deadly war on drugs.

    In the past, Duterte, who is Catholic, said that the Catholic Church in the Philippines had no moral authority to criticise him, chastising the sexual abuse allegedly committed by priests. He had also cursed at Pope Francis during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

    According to another opposition senator, Antonio Trillanes, the death toll in the government’s war on drugs has already surpassed 20,000 since Duterte came to office in 2016.

    The government, however, disputed that number, saying the death toll is much lower. According to the latest police report, 4,000 people were killed between the launch of the campaign on July 1, 2016, and March 20, 2018.

    Secillano said that what Duterte should understand is that the church is not against the president.

    “Maybe the president thinks that the church hates him. We don’t hate him. What we don’t actually like are some of the policies in the government.

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    “We want to treat drug addiction as a health issue. Our government is treating drug addicts as criminals. One by one, these addicts are being killed. They are out in the streets being shot to death.”

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