By Aie Balagtas See
The Philippine government and Catholic Church are at odds after the politically influential religious institution vowed to assert its right for people to worship during Holy Week amid an extended lockdown to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque warned the Manila archdiocese’s administrator, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, about a statement the clergyman made earlier this week that churches under his watch could continue to operate at 10 percent capacity.
Roque said he hoped Pabillo would “not encourage non-compliance” on policies in place to curb the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the capital region because the government would not hesitate to shut down churches.
“Defiance to [government] protocols is not covered by the separation of church and state,” Roque told reporters on Tuesday, according to transcripts of a daily press briefing released by the presidential palace.
“In the exercise of police powers, we can order the churches closed,” he said. “Let’s hope it does not reach that point.”
Starting with Palm Sunday, March 28, Christians across the majority-Catholic nation will be marking Holy Week through Easter, April 4.
In a note to parishioners on Wednesday after his announcement a day earlier, Pabillo said “misunderstandings” may have been avoided if government instructions were clear. He urged the government regulatory bodies to consult churches and other sectors affected by such policies.
“I lament the fact that the religious sectors are not represented, nor even consulted, when they make policies affecting our life of worship,” he said.
He stressed that parish priests would decide whether Holy Week activities would be shut down or only partially affected.
“Our priests are well-oriented that the supreme law in the church is ‘salus animarum,’ the salvation of the people,” Pabillo said. “I am confident that their decisions are animated by this principle.”
The Manila archdiocese encompasses Manila and the large suburbs of Pasay City, San Juan, Makati and Mandaluyong.
The government announced the soft lockdown – effective March 22 through Easter Sunday – for Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.
On Monday, the number of daily infections topped 8,000 – an all-time high. Infections fell to 6,666 by Wednesday, bringing to 684,311 the total number of cases in the Philippines. In addition, the government recorded 47 deaths, bringing the toll to 13,039.
The lockdown allows only essential travel from and to the areas, bans all mass gatherings along with dine-in services inside restaurants, cafes and other establishments and discourages face-to-face meetings.
In addition, a curfew has been imposed starting at 10 p.m. and running until 5 a.m. the next day, while people younger than 18 and older than 65 are “required to remain in their residences at all times.”
Despite the government action, Pabillo insisted that people had a right to worship.
“It is a time during which we feel more specially God’s love for us so we are drawn these days to thank and worship him more intensely,” he said about Holy Week.
“We assert our right to worship and the state should respect this and not unnecessarily hamper it,” he said. “Religious activities are essential services for the well-being of people.”
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), through its general secretary, Bishop Reuel Norman Marigza, supported Pabillo.
Marigza said “it was grossly unfair that without due consultation with the churches, religious gatherings during this holy season for Christians are prohibited.”
The NCCP is the largest organization of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines.
The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia and the church exerts a powerful influence on the daily lives of Filipinos. It helped topple two presidencies accused of corruption, dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001.
The church also campaigned against Rodrigo Duterte, the current president, during his 2016 electoral campaign. And after he took office, the church has spoken out against his administration’s drug war, which has left thousands dead.