A leading opposition figure in the Philippines has called President Rodrigo Duterte’s attacks on the Catholic Church “extremely sickening,” adding the president is attempting to cause “chaos and division.”
Senator Leila M. de Lima on Tuesday said those who “count ourselves as part of the pro-democracy forces, the urgent and compelling challenge to us is to get our acts together and not be weakened and disabled by unnecessary frictions and divisiveness, which only benefit and empower the real and greater enemy.”
Duterte has been at odds with the country’s Catholic Church since before he took office in 2016. Church leaders have condemned his bloody crackdown on the drug trade which has left thousands of people dead in extrajudicial killings, as well as his efforts to reintroduce the death penalty.
The president’s frequent remarks about killing drug dealers is credited by his critics for declaring an “open season” for the security forces to murder those in the drug trade with impunity.
Duterte also has earned flak from Church leaders for calling God stupid and for suggesting that people should not go to church to attend Mass.
On Dec. 29, Duterte vowed to continue attacking the Church until it “corrects itself.”
“If not, I will remain its opponent … and I will continue to attack it,” he said as he enumerated allegations against priests involved in sex abuse.
Duterte, who claimed to have been molested by a priest when he was a student, called on church leaders not to use the “platform of religion” to criticize him.
Last month, he drew condemnation for saying the bishops should be “killed” just days after saying a bishop named “David” – presumed to be Duterte critic Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan – should have his “head cut off.” His spokesman later called the president’s words “hyperbole.”
‘’It is apathy, silence or plain cowardice that have become enablers of the new order of political turmoil and moral decay in the society under Duterte,’’ de Lima said, according to the Manila Bulletin.
She also condemned the president’s recent admission he sexually molested a housemaid employed in his home when he was a teenager, saying the president is growing “even more toxic.”
A spokesman later said the president’s comments were made in jest.
“Shame on you, the greedy and abusive politicians who, by your selfish interests and visionless ambitions, have allowed yourselves to be pawns or willing partners of a tyrant on his path to perdition,” she said.
“The clear agenda of the despot is to foment chaos and division, which keep the citizenry confused, benumbed and paralyzed into stupor,” de Lima added. “The opposition must devise an aggressive counter-strategy to expose the insidious agenda of this regime, awaken the silent majority and stir them into action.”
Father Jerome Secillano, executive director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, on Tuesday told the ABS-CBN News Channel that the faithful in the Philippines – which is over 80 percent Catholic – are being insulted by the president.
“Imagine being called ‘stupid.’ Maybe it is not the people who are being called stupid but it is God whom we believe. It is God, who is the object of your faith. Catholics should be hurt by this,” the priest said.
“Those comments are quite insensitive. It’s not only about the hierarchy of the Church that’s being attacked but it’s already the doctrine of the Catholic faith. It is not only the priests or the bishops who should be affected by this but even the followers,” Secillano told the Philippine news network.
He refuted claims by some Duterte supporters that the president is in dialogue with the Church over its teachings.
“If it’s an intellectual discourse, you don’t put down the other. If it’s an intellectual discourse, you should actually be very rational about the comments. You should approach the people concerned and talk about this, not in public,” Secillano said.
“We’re talking about faith and faith is not something you joke about. If it’s going to be an intellectual discourse, why not approach the hierarchy of the Church or maybe some theologians about this. You don’t put down the other,” he added.
Despite the controversy, Duterte maintains his popularity in the country, with over 70 percent of the population supporting him.
The president has not toned down his rhetoric in the new year, and on Tuesday the former mayor joked about kidnapping and torturing officials of the central government office that audits local governments, calling the auditors “sons of bitches.”