By Jeoffrey Maitem and Karl Romano
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has escalated his verbal war with the Catholic Church by threatening to behead a bishop over allegations tied to drug dealing.
Duterte directed his comments against the church, which represents the country’s dominant faith and has led huge but peaceful street protests against his administration’s deadly crackdown on illegal narcotics, during a speech in southern Davao city on Monday night.
“Bishop, if you are selling drugs, I’ll have your head cut off,” Duterte said, according to transcripts made available on Tuesday.
The president did not specify which bishop he was alluding to, but he lashed out at a Bishop David for allegedly being engaged in corrupt practices, such as asking for vehicles and other favors from the church.
“The Catholic Church and Bishop David is clinging to a belief 3,000 years ago. How can people 3,000 years ago predict what is happening today? And you have the balls to criticize, brave as you are, to ask for cars from the government?” Duterte said.
“David, I’m beginning to suspect why you’re frequently roaming around at night. I suspect that you could be involved in drugs,” Duterte said without explaining how he got his information.
In the Philippines, the Catholic church only has one bishop named David – Pablo Virgillo David, a known critic of Duterte who spoke out against the killing of teenager Kian Loyd delos Santos during a police counter-drug raid in August 2017.
Duterte made his comments days before a court in a Manila suburb was expected to rule in the case of three policemen accused of murdering delos Santos, who was 17 years old.
On Tuesday, David responded to Duterte’s allegations.
“No, sir, I’m not into drugs of any sort, whether legal or illegal. … I only help in rehabilitating people addicted to drugs,” the bishop said in a statement. “I partner with the anti-drug abuse councils and offices of the local government units of Caloocan, Malabon and Navotas in this endeavor.”
He was referring to three suburban areas in northern Manila where drug abuse is rampant.
“Thank God I am not even taking any maintenance drugs yet. I only take vitamins with a fruit shake blended with malunggay (moringga) leaves in the morning. You might want to try it, sir. It will do you a lot of good. God bless you,” David added.
‘A dutiful shepherd’
Delos Santos was one of several children slain in the drug war last year, but his case galvanized church-led grassroots opposition to the crackdown.
The police claimed delos Santos had pulled a gun on the three officers now standing trial in his killing, but closed-circuit TV footage showed the policemen leading the boy away.
Meanwhile, Sen. Leila de Lima defended Bishop David against President Duterte’s criticism, which she called slanderous.
“He destroys the reputation of those who oppose him and those who fight for the victims of his rule. Bishop David is his latest victim,” De Lima said in a statement, referring to Duterte.
“David is a dutiful shepherd of his flock, doing all that is within his power to protect them amidst the murderous onslaught of Duterte’s drug war that has left a lot of children orphans. He has been successful in condemning the endless killings under Duterte, to the point that he has now become the newest target of Duterte’s intrigues, lies, and slanders,” the senator added.
De Lima has been jailed since last year. She claimed she was falsely accused by the government of profiting from drug syndicates when she led the country’s justice department. Her jailing was political payback for questioning Duterte’s drug war, she alleged.
As of October, 4,948 suspected drug addicts and dealers were killed since the crackdown began in mid-2016, when Duterte took office, according to statistics compiled by police. But human rights groups put the death toll at around 12,000.