Saying they are “no strangers to ridicule and persecution,” the bishops of the Philippines on Monday called for three days of prayer and penance to call for justice “on those who have blasphemed God’s Holy Name, those who slander and bear false witness, and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality in our country.”
Although never mentioning President Rodrigo Duterte by name, the pastoral statement alludes to the controversial leader several times.
Duterte has often clashed with the Church in the Philippines, one of only two Catholic-majority countries in Asia. The bishops have criticized his violent anti-drug program, which has led to the deaths of thousands, and his push to reinstate the death penalty.
Last month, Duterte said God was “stupid” and attacked several of the teachings of the Catholic faith.
“To those in this world who boast of their own wisdom, those who arrogantly regard themselves as wise in their own estimation and the Christian faith as nonsense, those who blaspheme our God as stupid, St. Paul’s words are to the point: ‘For the stupidity of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’,” said Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles, the president of the Philippines bishops’ conference, in Monday’s letter, called a “pastoral exhortation.”
Valles has known Duterte since the time the president served as mayor of Davao City. In a meeting with the press on Monday, the archbishop said that “a good number of people are pained” by the president’s words and actions.
The archbishop’s letter on Monday – issued on behalf of the entire bishops’ conference – noted the recent attacks on Catholic clergy – three priests have been murdered since last December – and asked: “What is new about priests being murdered for witnessing to Christ? What is new about modern prophets being silenced by the treacherous bullets of assassins? What is new about servant leaders who are maligned because they have carried out their duties as shepherds configured to the person of their Chief Shepherd?”
However, Valles said the sufferings of the Church hierarchy and clergy “are nothing” compared to what is happening to the poor in the Philippines.
It is estimated that over 12,000 people have died in Duterte’s war against drug trafficking, many of them innocent civilians.
The U.S. State Department has noted that Duterte has made “numerous public statements suggesting that killing suspected drug traffickers and users was necessary to meet his goal of wiping out drug-related crime.”
In his letter, Valles gave a litany of abuses suffered by the poor in the country:
“Do we not hear the cry of poor slum-dwellers being jailed for ‘loitering’? Have they forgotten that for the homeless urban poor — the little alleys between their flimsy homes also serve as kitchens, bathrooms, recreation spaces, and playgrounds for their children? Have they forgotten that they live in tiny dwellings that are razed quickly to the ground when fire strikes, because they do not have proper roads? Do we not feel the sufferings of drug addicts who are labelled as ‘non-humans’ and are stigmatized as criminals when their names end up in the dreaded ‘drug watch lists’?”
Noting the suffering of those victimized by substance abusers, the archbishop called on people to still see them as “sick people who are struggling with a disease.”
“Should we not rather look at them also as victims who are crying out for help? Are we to remain as bystanders when we hear of people being killed in cold blood by ruthless murderers who dispose of human lives like trash? Do we not realize that for every drug suspect killed, there is a widowed wife and there are orphaned children left behind — who could hardly even afford a decent burial for their loved ones? Do we not care when poor people’s homes are searched without warrants, or when drug suspects are arrested without warrants, or detained without charges?”
Valles also noted the poor conditions in the nation’s prisons, the suffering of the country’s indigenous population, and the innocent victims of the various insurgent conflicts across the Philippines.
The archbishop also alluded to a statement made by Duterte last week, when he complained of the “creeping influence” of the Catholic Church.
“There are those who accuse us of getting involved in political moves to destabilize the government. Nothing can be further from the truth. Our concern is never the establishment of any earthly kingdoms. Worldly kingdoms come and go. We work only for God’s kingdom which is beyond this world,” Valles said.
“The Church respects the political authority, especially of democratically-elected government officials, as long as they do not contradict the basic spiritual and moral principles we hold dear, such as respect for the sacredness of life, the integrity of creation, and the inherent dignity of the human person,” the archbishop continued, adding that the bishops “are not political leaders, and certainly not political opponents of government.”
He said the bishops “recognize the constitutional provision of the separation of church and state, mainly in the sense of distinction of roles in society.”
“When we speak out on certain issues, it is always from the perspective of faith and morals, especially the principles of social justice, never with any political or ideological agenda in mind,” Valles said.
The bishops’ days of prayer and fasting are scheduled to take place July 17-19.