Philippine Clergy Say They Have Received Death Threats After President Duterte Urged People to Rob and Kill ‘Homosexual, Greedy’ Catholic Bishops

Catholic nuns participate in a healing protest in Manila in 2017, as Catholic bishops called for an end to killings in President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.
Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte harbors a no-holds-barred hostility toward the Catholic Church and he’s been hurling barbs at it as he stumps for candidates in the upcoming midterm election.

“Almost 90 percent of the priests are homosexual,” he has declared. He also insinuated that others have secret relationships with women.

He cast bishops as “greedy” and urged people to “rob” and even murder them.

“These bishops, kill them, those fools are good for nothing. All they do is criticize,” he said in December, prompting titters from his audience, and alarm from the clergy.

Duterte has said he was sexually abused as a boy by a priest, which some Filipinos believe may partly explain his strong antagonism toward the Catholic Church, the country’s largest religious institution by far.

The president’s chief legal counsel and spokesman, Salvador Panelo, says Duterte’s anti-clergy tirades should not be taken literally. “These are jokes. These are hyperbole. These are said in jest,” Panelo told NPR.

However, the church is not laughing. At least five bishops and priests say they received death threats in recent weeks. Each one has been a vocal critic of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, arguing that it has targeted the urban poor and left drug lords largely untouched.

Duterte’s anti-drug operations killed 5,281 people from the time they began in July 2016 through February 2019, according to Derrick Carreon, spokesman for the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Human Rights Watch says that figure does not include nearly 23,000 others who police say were killed by unidentified gunmen or vigilantes, widely considered extrajudicial killings. Duterte denies involvement in summary executions and taunts human rights defenders with vows to widen the war on illegal drugs, which he says are making the country “insane.”

Albert Alejo, a priest and social anthropologist who teaches at Ateneo de Manila University, says his work protecting whistleblowers in the drug war has put him at risk. He says he began receiving death threats in mid-February in the form of “incessant” profanity-filled phone calls, which later became invective-filled text messages.

“Big capital letters, as if to scream, and laden with ‘son of a b****’ … saying that he’ll kill me. … It’s shocking,” says the 61-year-old priest and academic. One text message warned clergymen to “prepare” for their “wake.”

Alejo has no car or personal security. He travels on foot, hopping from bus to jeepney. He has restricted his movements and varied his routine. Alejo joined fellow clerics in declining an offer of protection from the Philippine National Police, saying it would be “ironic” to accept security from an institution they have doubts about.

“Right now, we’re vulnerable,” he says, speaking of targeted clergy.

Alejo first learned about Duterte during his Jesuit training in Davao City, on the country’s southernmost island of Mindanao, where Duterte constructed his strongman image. Human rights advocates including Alejo say Davoa became the “safest” city in the country — by killing suspected criminals and drug addicts.

Alejo says the tough-on-crime approach swept Duterte to the presidency in 2016, when he scaled up the drug war, going after small-time peddlers and users of narcotics, mainly meth or shabu as it is popularly known in the Philippines.

“Mostly very poor guys, in rubber slippers, riding in tricycles. It’s really very painful,” Alejo says of the fatal victims.

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SOURCE: NPR, Julie McCarthy