When armed men shot and killed three Christian priests across the Philippines earlier this year, the unholy slayings presaged President Rodrigo Duterte’s public call to kill critical clergymen.

Two of the mysterious murders were carried out while the priests were inside their churches, delivering blessings or making sermons in the deeply devout Catholic-majority nation. Father Mark Anthony Ventura was shot dead just minutes after saying mass at his mission station in May.

A fourth priest, who was chaplain for the Philippine police, survived an assassination attempt in mid-2018. None of the murders or murder attempts have been solved, typical for the country’s slow-moving and largely dysfunctional justice system.

Still, there are growing concerns that Dutetre’s lethal war on drugs, the populist president’s signature policy, is being tacitly extended to the campaign’s critics, including prominent men of the cloth in the powerful Catholic Church.

Incensed by the Church’s rising criticism of his scorched-earth anti-drug policy, in which over 12,000 have been killed since mid-2016, Duterte this month publicly called for the killing of priests and other Church officials.

In a December 5 speech at Malacañang, the presidential palace in the capital Manila, Duterte made it clear that he is exasperated with the Church, saying in an unprecedented flourish, “these bishops, kill them, those fools are good for nothing. All they do is criticize.”

Catholic nuns in a healing protest in Manila on November 5, 2017.Catholic bishops led thousands of Philippine worshippers in calling for an end to killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war as they urged police and troops to stop the violence. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Catholic nuns in a healing protest in Manila on November 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

A week prior, the tough-talking leader verbally tussled with the charismatic Diocese of Caloocan, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, who has been among the most vocal opponents of Duterte’s war on drugs among the Catholic clergy.

Duterte accused the prominent bishop of stealing public funds and using illegal drugs, putting the clergyman’s life in danger amid the killing of thousands of suspected drug suspects, both by police officials and vigilantes.

Bishop David responded by categorically denying the accusations, while suggesting that Duterte is “very sick” and delusional.

The clergyman has good reason to be critical of the campaign. Caloocan has been the site of one of the highest number of extrajudicial killings in the country, including the August 2017 shooting murder of teenager Kian delos Santos by police forces, an incident captured on CCTV footage that sparked massive street protests against the government.

In late November, a regional trial court convicted three police officers of murdering Kian, a landmark precedent that rights advocates and others hope will lead to similar rulings against other abusive officials accused of extrajudicial killings in the campaign.

Relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings show portraits of their loved ones during a Catholic mass against drug war killings at the Edsa Shrine in Pasig, metro Manila, Philippines November 5, 2017.  Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao
Relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings show portraits of their loved ones during a Catholic mass against drug war killings at the Edsa Shrine in Pasig, metro Manila, November 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

But it’s just as likely that more priests, bishops and clergymen are killed before any officials are brought to book for murder, observers say.

Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, has tried to downplay the president’s threat against bishops as “hyperbole” made only for “dramatic effect.” He said that “[w]e should be getting used to this president’s [jokes],” rather than taking them literally.

History shows Duterte is playing with political fire by targeting the Church. From administering almost all relevant aspects of Spanish colonial rule in past centuries, the Catholic Church has more recently played a pivotal role in political upheavals, including its support of the popular revolts that toppled former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The late Cardinal Jaime Sin, a source of moral authority amid Marcos’ rampant rights abuses, played an overt role in rallying millions in the devout Christian nation in support of opposition groups that effectively overthrew the dictator.

Nonetheless, Duterte has taken on the Church with pomp and gusto. On one hand, he has banked on the somewhat fading influence of the Catholic Church amid the rise of highly organized and rich evangelist groups, many of which, including the prominent Iglesia Ni Cristo, have rallied behind him.

Duterte’s grudge against the Catholic Church is rooted in part to his personal experience, including his alleged sexual abuse as a boy at the hands of a Catholic friar. In a speech in June this year, Duterte made headlines by referring to God as “stupid” in a scathing critique of the Christian concept of original sin.

Philippines-Rodrigo Duterte-Romulo Valles-CBCP-Facebook
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) with Catholic Archbishop Romulo Valles. Photo: Facebook

Duterte’s persistently high public approval ratings have given him the confidence and insulation to push back against any challenge to his authority. That’s put him at often heated loggerheads with the Church, including in regard to his support for state-sponsored population management programs which defy Catholic dogma on family planning.

There is no evidence yet that this year’s killing of priests were in any way state-sponsored. Police investigators said Father Ventura, a known environmental activist and advocate of tribal people’s rights, was “shot dead by hired killers” as a result of a “serious personal grudge.”

But influential clergymen are baying for better answers, particularly after Duterte’s provocative statement earlier this month.

Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, has referred to the priests’ killings as an “outrageously evil act” and called on law enforcement officials “to go after the perpetrators of this heinous crime and bring them to justice.”

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, another influential clergyman, has urged Duterte to “stop the verbal persecution” against Church officials “because such attacks can unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests.”

“They are killing our flock. They are killing us, the shepherds. They are killing our faith. They are cursing our church,” Catholic leaders said in a joint statement earlier this year amid the unprecedented spate of killings.

Rights groups are adding to the chorus. Carlos Conde, spokesperson for Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights advocacy group, warned in an interview with Al Jazeera, “remarks like [Duterte’s against priests] are dangerous because it is clearly inciting people to commit violence against critics of the government.”

Philippines-Father Mark Anthony Ventura-May 7-2018
Slain Philippine priest Mark Anthony Ventura is laid to rest on May 7, 2018. Photo: Twitter

“In the context of the death and violence we’ve seen in the Philippines since Duterte became president, many of them directed at members of the clergy, this is frightening and should be a cause for concern,” Conde added.

The unresolved clergy killings may also have come in the context of ongoing crackdowns on communist rebels, leftist activists and their sympathizers, analysts say.

One of the murdered priests was involved in facilitating the release of a political prisoner, while another was a known advocate for ethnic minorities, some of which have been suspected of joining communist rebels in their fight against big mining companies accused of ravaging the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.

The Church has historically provided shelter to persecuted groups, with many rural priests supporting campaigns launched by farmers, indigenous groups and human rights activists against allegedly abusive politicians, corporations and security forces.

In broader terms, Duterte is engaged in a classic “church vs state” struggle against the Catholic hierarchy. But if his call to kill priests is more clearly proven to be his government’s policy, he will likely find the political and popular support he now enjoys quickly evaporates to the heavens.