Ahead of a major speech by President Rodrigo Duterte, Church leaders in the Philippines are calling for an end to “intimidation and fear” in the country.

Duterte was scheduled to give his annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday. This year’s speech comes just weeks after the president signed a new anti-terrorism law which was strongly opposed by the Philippines bishops’ conference and human rights groups.

Church leaders have often been at odds with the populist leader, who has encouraged police to shoot drug dealers and opposed the bishops on issues such as divorce, contraception, and the death penalty.

“Amid a global health crisis, unjust killings across the country continue. We, sadly, must admit that it is unlikely for our government to use its power to stop this, because from the very start of the Duterte administration, it is officially endorsed,” said Bishop Gerardo A. Alminaza of San Carlos in a July 25 statement.

“A significant portion of our people, tricked into believing the promise of ‘change,’ congratulated the administration under the President’s rule for allegedly freeing our country from terrorism and crime. The only thing it was able to do, however, is stain its hands with the blood of innocents whose silence it wanted, and of the increasing victims of COVID-19 whom it has chosen to neglect by pursuing instead the Anti-Terrorism Law to legitimize impunity,” the bishop continued.

Alminaza also criticized the practice of “red tagging” – labeling human rights and social justice organizations as “communist fronts,” which can lead to warrantless arrest, detention without charges, torture, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

“Through pseudo-campaigns for peace and order, [local government and military forces] have been unrelenting in justifying attacks and sowing intimidation and fear,” he said.

“I call for peace between our state forces and groups, even those who are dubbed as rebels, who express dissent at the ways of the government. I plead to our government to stop the immoral killings of our people.”

The San Carlos bishop also attacked Duterte’s “war on drugs” and “war against terrorism,” claiming they “have rippled into war-on-rights, spilling blood among our flock.”

“Our diocese bleeds, and we are crying for mercy. In these ‘wars’, we have lost activists, human rights advocates, environmentalists, farm leaders, police men, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, government officials, and ordinary citizens­—not a single one of whom had been tried or convicted for the crimes they were accused of committing!” Alminaza said.

The bishop said the new anti-terrorism law – which which increases the number of days that suspects can be detained without warrants from three to 24 and allows for the surveillance and wire-tapping of any individual on mere suspicion of being an alleged terrorist, even without any evidence of wrongdoing – is transforming Philippine society “into a criminal state.”

“The government must respect freedom of expression, should not give unlawful power to state forces to arrest and inflict terror, and must never desecrate the people’s civil and democratic rights,” he added.

Alminaza’s statement came after a July 22 pastoral letter from Bishop Patricio Buzon of Bacolod warning that “being apathetic and silent in these trying times is not an option.”

In the letter, Buzon called on the parishes to organize a “holy hour” on July 27, the day of Duterte’s address.

The Bacolod bishop had earlier said democracy in the Philippines “is being imperiled” and the country is in danger of slipping into “tyrannical rule.”

Buzon also complained about the administration’s recent attacks on the freedom of the press. ABS-CBN Corp., the country’s most popular broadcaster, was shut down this summer after the Philippines Congress refused to renew its broadcast license. In addition, the award-winning Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, founder of the popular independent Rappler news website, was convicted of libel in a case criticized by free speech advocates.

“Democracy thrives in plurality of views where opposing views are not stifled and independent voices not silenced. To uphold, respect and protect this plurality is the common good,” the bishop said.

Although the bishops and Duterte often clash on policy issues, the president has on many occasions made personal attacks against the bishops, including veiled threats.

In 2018, he called on people to “kill the bishops” and even threatened Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan with decapitation. Duterte – who claims he was sexually abused by a priest in school – also often accuses the hierarchy of sexual and financial corruption.

His spokesman says the president uses “hyperbole” and his threats are just jokes. Despite the fact the nation of over 100 million people is over 80 percent Catholic, Duterte remains hugely popular due to his tough-on-crime stance.

However, Alminaza said the people of the Philippines “are tired of hearing unwarranted jokes and threats” from their leader.

“President Duterte promised during his campaigns that change was coming – and indeed it came, but only for the worse,” he said.

“Today, the spate of deaths continues not only through state-endorsed killings, but also through rampant hunger, loss of livelihood, and environmental degradation, among many others,” the bishop added.

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