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‘Ready the places where you’ll be buried’: Philippine priests say they are under threat

Catholic priests Robert Reyes, Albert Alejo and Flaviano Villanueva speak to reporters about threats they have received since President Rodrigo Duterte denounced church leaders. (Aaron Favila/AP)

MANILA — At least two bishops and three priests critical of the Philippine government have received death threats in the past month following President Rodrigo Duterte’s denunciations of church leaders, including a call for the killing of bishops.

The threats, unprecedented in Asia’s largest Catholic country, underscore how Duterte’s insults against the church can have real-world consequences. Three priests have been killed from December 2017 to June 2018, and the deaths have gone unpunished. 

“Ready the places where you’ll be buried . . . because the next mass . . . will be a mass for your souls to rest in peace,” read a text message sent Feb. 14 to Archbishop Socrates Villegas of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan, north of Manila. The sender was anonymous, and the message was in all capital letters. 

Another, sent Feb. 10 to the Rev. Albert Alejo, a Jesuit priest, read: “You son of a whore! Your days are numbered, you animal.” It came after several unanswered calls from the same number that sent the message. 

At a news conference Monday, three priests — Alejo, Robert Reyes and Flaviano Villanueva — along with Villegas and another bishop shared the expletive-riddled messages sent to them. All of the clerics have been critical of the Duterte administration and its war on drugs, in which thousands have died at the hands of police or vigilantes, prompting calls for an International Criminal Court investigation. 

Philippines’s Catholic Church sounds alarm amid Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown

Duterte’s tirades against the Philippine church, the priests said, were an attempt to undermine what is possibly the biggest and most powerful institution critical of his drug war. Reyes slammed what he said was a “systematic and deliberate and purposeful tactic to divide the church, which is now leaping on its moral duty to fight against injustice and extrajudicial killings.”

While the threatening messages cannot be directly linked to the Duterte administration, the priests said they believe they were at least inspired by the president’s rhetoric.

“These bishops of yours, kill them,” Duterte said in December. “They’re good-for-nothing fools. All they do is criticize.” His spokesman later dismissed the statement as “hyperbole.” Duterte has also claimed that he was sexually assaulted by a priest as a student.

“The president is the president. Whether he says it as a joke, it becomes policy,” Reyes said. “Kill the bishops, it’s policy.”

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, who oversees a diocese in northern metro Manila, first revealed threats against his life in February. They started after the president suggested in November that David was involved in illegal drugs.

His diocese of Caloocan City has been a hot spot for executions in the drug war, including the killing of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos in 2017.

Duterte has said he has nothing to do with the threats. His spokesman, Salvador Panelo, has said such messages probably came from people trying to put Duterte “in a bad light.” 

David has declined a police offer of a security detail. The three priests have not approached authorities, either. “The reason why is obvious,” Reyes said.

They are considering whether to approach the Supreme Court.

Villanueva, who runs a feeding and hygiene center for the poor in Manila, presented surveillance-camera footage of a man wearing a mask and cap roaming the premises of the building. The priest is a former drug addict who has welcomed those seeking help for their addictions, as well as widows and orphans of people slain in the drug war. 

The man in the video spent about 17 minutes knocking at the center’s door before crossing the street, as a white van rolled out of the camera’s view, leading the priest to suspect that there was a plan to abduct him.

Clerics say the threats have been fed by disinformation spread on social media. In October, pro-Duterte Facebook accounts shared false information that the church had excommunicated Reyes. In recent months, Facebook has removed dozens of pages in response.

Reyes, who took a leave of absence between 2006 and 2016 after protesting the church leadership’s political ties, said he has been called a serial rapist and a homosexual and accused of being obscenely wealthy.

The priests are calling for a firmer stance from the Catholic leadership in the face of what they view as provocations from Duterte, who took office in 2016. 

“After three years, the diplomatic approach I think is valid, but it’s not working,” Alejo said. 

Surveys show that a majority of Filipinos consider Duterte’s insults against the church to be vulgar. But those who study the role of religion in Philippine society say the church’s leadership is in a precarious position, particularly as the tirades and quips come from a popular president who wields significant influence. 

“In the eyes of the public, what Duterte says about priests might be true,” said religion sociologist Jayeel Cornelio of Ateneo de Manila University. “Many Filipinos also do not wish the church to meddle in government affairs . . . [but] the church can continue to expose this to the public, because that will be its only protection.”

Duterte’s criticism of the church — and, on one occasion, God — comes amid a growing culture of impunity in the Philippines. Police have recorded at least 5,000 deaths in drug operations — but rights groups estimate that at least 20,000 killings and drug-related deaths have occurred since 2016.

“At least we have death threats,” Alejo said. “So many of our brothers and sisters have already been killed right away without warning.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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