By Karl Romano
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has amplified his tirades against the Catholic Church by threatening to publicly expose unflattering intelligence data he says he obtained on one of three priests killed in the last six months.
More than 80 percent of the country’s estimated 105 million people are congregants of the church, which has been vocal in its opposition to the Duterte administration’s anti-drugs campaign that has left thousands of suspected pushers and dealers dead since June 2016.
Three priests have been gunned down in recent months, including Father Richmond Nilo, who was shot Sunday inside his chapel in northern Nueva Ecija province.
His killing came more than a month after another priest, Mark Anthony Ventura, was killed by men who fled on a motorcycle. In December, Nueva Ecija priest Marcelito Paez was shot and killed.
On Wednesday, Duterte said he had a “matrix” of intelligence data that had been compiled about one of the priests and that he had kept it because of its sensitivity.
“If the Catholics want, I will release this matrix on why this priest died,” Duterte said. “I did not release it, but I gave a copy to the chairman of the CBCP.”
The president was referring to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which this week called on his government to investigate the deaths immediately.
There was no response from the CBCP, but its leaders have not given any indication that it had received intelligence data.
“The problem with these fools, they look at themselves as saints,” Duterte said. “And these policemen and soldiers are devils in their eyes.”
Duterte made these comments during a speech late Wednesday before corrections officers, police and firefighters. In the speech, he emphasized that he would not allow any of them to go to prison if they were charged in connection with any of the thousands of killings committed in his nearly two-year-old war on drugs.
Duterte has had a testy relationship with the church, which campaigned against the self-described womanizer and tough politician from the south, who has repeatedly boasted of killing drug addicts and criminals and dumping their bodies into Manila Bay.
In February, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague notified the government that it had launched a preliminary investigation into drug-related killings. Duterte initially welcomed the investigation to determine whether there was enough evidence to build a case against him.
It was based on complaints by a former Duterte police aide and a self-described assassin, who told the court that Duterte had ordered the deaths of criminals and political foes when he was a longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao.
Duterte subsequently pulled out of an international treaty that established the ICC, claiming that the court had already prejudged him.
Police have said that more than 4,000 suspected were killed in encounters with officers, but rights groups place the number of deaths at more than 12,000.
Last year, Duterte removed police from the lead role in the drug war after three teenagers were gunned down. Authorities, however, later established that the police officers involved in the shootings may have mistaken them as drug couriers.
The teens’ deaths galvanized public anger against Duterte. Church leaders ordered that gruesome photographs of people killed in the drug war be displayed outside houses of worship while bells were tolled in the evening as a sign of protest.
On Thursday, Carlos Conde, the Philippine researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, expressed grave concern over the killings of the priests, as well as journalists and others who had opposed the government’s anti-drug campaign.
“These killings, alongside the thousands of deaths in the ‘drug war,’ are grim reminders of the vulnerability of the poor and those who speak out for their rights and against the deadly extrajudicial violence that Philippine authorities are apparently unwilling or unable to either stop or provide accountability for,” Conde told BenarNews.
Felipe Villamor from Manila contributed to this report.