A Catholic bishop who spoke out about President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs confirmed Tuesday that he had received death threats from unknown persons.
The revelation by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan city, a suburb of Manila, came as the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership in the country had asked Duterte to ease up on alleged threats against the clergy.
David, who is vice president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the threats began about two weeks ago.
“But I don’t know who they are coming from,” the bishop said.
David has been among the most vocal members of the church, which wields influence in the Philippines, Asia’s biggest predominantly Catholic nation. He has in the past questioned the Duterte administration’s brutal methods, in particular a drug war that has left over 5,000 suspected drug dealers and addicts dead since mid-2016, according to police statistics.
But in a departure from his previous stand, Duterte on Sunday asked the public not to harm members of the clergy, saying he had been made aware of death threats to bishops.
Duterte said the Catholic Church leader in the country, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, had notified him about the threat against Bishop David. Duterte said Tagle had told him the threats came from someone “claiming to be working for the president’s family.”
“Do not touch priests, they had nothing to do with politics,” Duterte told a political rally in the central Philippines on Sunday. “Either Muslims or Christians, they had nothing to do with us. Do not do it. Do not try to do it. The religious have nothing to do with the vagaries of life. Lay off! Stop threatening them or you will have to face me.”
Duterte’s warning came amid his repeated verbal attacks against the church, and it was not clear whether his warning meant he would also tone down his criticism of the church. He had earlier lambasted the church, accusing it of being ruled by sexual predators. He admitted that he had been molested as a child studying at a Catholic school.
In a speech in December, the president openly called for the assassination of bishops. “These bishops that you guys have, kill them,” the president had said. “They are useless fools. All they do is criticize.”
Bishop David said these threats would not deter him from voicing opposition to the drug war.
“No threat or intimidation can stop me from carrying on with my spiritual and pastoral duties as a bishop,” he said.
But the threats forced him to lay low, he conceded. On Tuesday, David skipped a human rights award ceremony that was supposed to honor him for his work.
“Bishop David decided to skip the award[s] because he has been receiving death threats,” said human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, who blamed Duterte for encouraging violence against members of the clergy and rights advocates.
Diokno said Duterte’s order at the weekend was meant to give the president an excuse in case something happened to the bishop.
“We see a pattern. They will say there is no direct order coming from above. But we are seeing a pattern, the president will say something, and then something bad will happen to the person he criticizes,” Diokno said.
He was referring to Sen. Leila de Lima, a former rights commissioner, who is now in jail on charges of drug trafficking. De Lima has denied all the charges and accused the government of falsely accusing her of profiting from the drug trade to finance her campaign.
Last week, a former police general testified that one of the prosecution witnesses against de Lima was found to be involved in the drug trade. Last week, the senator entered her second year in detention.
Joseph Jubelag contributed to this report from General Santos City, Philippines.