A priest was shot dead as he was about to hold Mass in the northern Philippines, the third member of the clergy to be gunned down during the past six months in Asia’s bastion of Roman Catholicism, police said Monday.
Father Richmond Nilo died immediately when unidentified assailants shot him inside the San Pablo Chapel in Zaragoza, a town in Nueva Ecija province, authorities said.
Nilo’s killing came more than a month after another priest, Mark Anthony Ventura, 37, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle in the northern province of Cagayan. In December, Father Marcelito Paez was killed in a similar fashion, also in Nueva Ecija.
The attacks occurred while the Catholic Church was on the defensive from President Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly criticized it and recently ordered the deportation of an Australian nun who had joined street protests against his administration’s deadly war on drugs.
“We condemn the death of this priest from Nueva Ecija. We will really give priority to the investigation into his death,” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, told reporters, adding that national police chief Director General Oscar Albayalde had been ordered to conduct a speedy investigation into the case.
Last week, during a trip to South Korea, Duterte urged Catholics to stop giving contributions to the church and to look for another religion. He said he would start a religion where the goal was to make oneself happy above anything else.
“We will have a new religion. It will be called the Church of Rodrigo. There will be no limit,” he said.
Archbishop Romulo Valles, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said Nilo was not known to have enemies, as he asked the police to speed up its investigation into the case.
“We are deeply saddened and terribly disturbed that another priest is brutally killed,” he said in a statement. “We strongly condemn this evil act.
Valles said the church was one with Nilo’s parishioners “as they face the brutal death of their own priest at the hand of bloody murderers in this time.”
“We make our appeal once again to the police authorities to act swiftly in the investigation and to go after the perpetrators of this heinous crime and bring them to justice,” Valles said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.