Can a man who compares himself to Hitler and who publicly acknowledges having executed people in cold blood be elected president of a country, and one of the most Catholic countries in the world at that?
Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, proves it can happen.
Never one to back down from a fight, Duterte recently responded to harsh criticism for his violent war on drugs by the Catholic community in the Philippines by telling all those who wish to stand with him to “join” him in Hell.
Since his taking office in June 2016, Duterte has unleashed police and masked vigilantes against drug addicts and dealers in the country, causing the death of nearly 7,000 people in the last seven months.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines wrote in a Jan. 30 pastoral letter to be read in congregations across the country, that the president has created a “reign of terror in many places of the poor.”
Duterte dismissed the accusations with his typically controversial bravado during a press conference: “You Catholics, if you believe in your priests and bishops, you stay with them. If you want to go to heaven, then go to them,” he said.
“Now, if you want to end drugs … I will go to hell. Come join me,” Duterte added.
In the letter Catholic bishops wrote that you “cannot correct a wrong by doing another wrong. A good purpose is not a justification for using evil means.” This was an effort to move public opinion in a country where more than 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.
The Catholic Church and Duterte have clashed in the past after the president provided free birth control in the country. In January, Duterte responded to criticism by accusing the Church of sexually abusing children and of keeping money from the poor.
The United Nations and several human rights groups have also condemned Duterte’s crime policy, but polls show that his approval rates are still very strong, surpassing 80 percent.
In fact it is his personality, perceived as macho and strong, that led to his being elected in the first place. As soon as Duterte took office he promised that the “fish will grow fat” in Manila Bay because of all the bodies dumped in it.
He vowed to kill 100,000 criminals in only six months, and although he’s fallen short, the death toll keeps growing.
After all, Duterte was known as the “Punisher” when he was mayor of Davao. From 2005 to 2009 armed groups linked to Duterte killed 206 people, of which 19 were children, according to the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights.
Reportedly Duterte would patrol the city on his motorcycle, and has made a point of not denying accusations of personally executing alleged criminals.
Despite outcry from the international community, those close to him seem to support his approach and ideals. “You consider them humanity?” said the Justice Secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, referring to drug lords and drug addicts. “I believe not.”
Such combative statements are a trademark of Duterte, who in September of 2016 said that, “if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have…” while pointing at himself.
“Hitler massacred three million Jews, now there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said.
Some have been critical of the Church’s slow response to the crisis in the Philippines, which has claimed thousand of lives. After meeting with Pope Francis, one of Duterte’s top advisers told the press that the pope blessed the Philippines, and its president.
Meanwhile the Catholic bishops in the Philippines said in the letter that the burden lies with those who survive Duterte’s purge. “The situation of the families of those killed is also cause for concern. Their lives have only become worse,” they wrote.