MANILA, Philippines – Every night, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David walks around his church, the San Roque Cathedral, clutching his rosary and praying.
People close to David know this habit of his.
But in November 2018, it came as a shock that even the President of the Philippines knew his nightly routine. How did this intelligence information reach the commander in chief? And why?
"David! Nagdududa nga ako bakit ka sige ikot diyan nang gabi. Duda tuloy ako, putang ina, nasa droga ka," said Duterte in a November 2018 speech in Davao City. (David! I'm having my suspicions because you keep going around at night. I have suspicions, son of a bitch, that you're into drugs.)
Duterte had threatened in a speech on December 6, 2018: "Eh puta, sinabi ko sa 'yo, maghanap ka ng obispo diyan na nasa droga, 'di ba, putulan kita ng ulo." (Fuck, I told you, find a bishop who is into drugs, and I will chop off his head.)
At that time, David – vice president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines – was the most prominent bishop he had linked to the illegal drug trade.
Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler
Following these remarks by the President, David said, "I was advised to stop praying the rosary every night while walking around the San Roque Cathedral grounds because the President had insinuated that such a behavior, which I suppose his surveillance people had reported to him, could mean that I must be into drugs."
He noted that nobody from the Philippine National Police offered to boost his security after Duterte's public threat in December 2018.
This week, however, David said Caloocan City's local police chief offered him help. "He said his 'superiors wish to extend services in providing me with security.'" David said, "I found this ironic and I let him know how I felt."
"'Sir,' I said, 'as far as I know, your ultimate superior is the President himself."
The threats against David, as well as other bishops and priests, show that Duterte's violent tirades against clergymen have begun to take flesh. Catholic leaders fear that murderers might take these a step further.
Nearly 3 years into his presidency, after all, Filipinos know that what Duterte says, Duterte gets.
Duterte's attacks against bishops and priests have escalated as the Catholic Church remains relentless in blasting his anti-drug campaign. His threats in December 2018 marked the first time he openly called for the murder of Catholic prelates.
Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, another vocal critic of Duterte's policies, said in June 2018 that Duterte should "stop the verbal persecution of the Catholic Church because such attacks can wittingly embolden more crimes against priests."
Photo by Eloisa Lopez
But Duterte changed his tune on Monday, February 25. This was after Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle – who is said to keep open communication lines with Duterte's men – reportedly sent a text message to Duterte's long-time aide, Bong Go.
Duterte, in a February 25 speech, read Tagle's supposed message to Go: "Good day po. Greetings from Rome. I was informed that Bishop David…some priests got death threats from someone claiming to be working for the President's family….Just to let you know, baka may naninira (someone might be trying to destroy your reputation). Thanks. We pray."
Duterte then backtracked on his earlier call to have bishops killed. He said he himself will be the enemy of those who kill bishops and priests, "because you are doing that to destroy my name."
Power of words
His critics remain unconvinced.
Sister Mary John Mananzan, an 81-year-old activist nun, said Duterte's threats mirror this mindset: government critics should be eliminated.
"My goodness, that is not a democracy. That is really a tyrannical government," she said.
Referring to Duterte's reckless pronouncements, Mananzan told Rappler: "He does not realize that as President, people under him, especially those who want to please him, could take it seriously, and they could take it upon themselves."
"My goodness, words are so powerful, but these are more powerful when you are in a position of responsibility, and most especially when you are in a position of highest responsibility. You cannot underestimate the power of words, especially coming from the President," Mananzan said.
Mananzan cited how the government's anti-drug campaign, called Oplan Tokhang, "is a great example" of how Duterte's words have impact – and a bloody one at that – on the ground.
She recalled Duterte's repeated instruction for policemen to shoot drug suspects who fight back in police operations. (READ: Bulacan drug war: Cops say he fought back, his wife says it was an execution)
Now, she said, all drug suspects seem to be "fighting back."
Duterte's words also influenced the deportation of Australian nun Sister Patricia Fox, whom the government kicked out of the Philippines for allegedly engaging in political activities – a charge the nun denies. (READ: Crackdown on missionaries fuels dictatorship fears)
The Bureau of Immigration (BI) often cites a July 2015 order, stating that foreign tourists "are prohibited from engaging in any political activity" in the Philippines, and violators "shall be subject to deportation proceedings."
In the BI's July 2018 resolution to deport Fox, however, Duterte's words served as the final nail in the coffin.
"Finally, we are mindful, and we take judicial notice of the fact, that the President has already announced in several media interviews and speeches that Fox is an undesirable alien by joining political rallies," the BI said.
"By such declaration," the BI added, "the President has exercised his plenary power to expel or deport an alien for being undesirable."
Though it was street language in yet another rambling speech, the President's words prevailed.
Culture of impunity
Still, there is something more fearsome than the effects of Duterte's words on individual church personalities.
"Ang isang nakakabahala diyan, 'yung culture of impunity na mananatili (One disturbing thing about that is the culture of impunity that will remain)," said Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo in an interview with Rappler.
Pabillo, 63, appealed to Duterte, "Let us be decent. Act presidentiable."
Father Gilbert Billena, a Carmelite priest helping victims of drug war killings, said the death threats against priests aim to stop the Catholic Church from being a prophet in thse times.
Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler
"I think this is a calculated action of the administration – not only by Duterte himself, but also by his minions – to silence the Church because the Church is a potential force with the credibility to speak out, criticize, and correct the mistakes happening under this administration," Billena told Rappler in Filipino.
Billena also cited threats against other religious leaders, such as the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and the Aglipayan Church. "What is happening to them is worse because it is really red-tagging," he said.
But for both Pabillo and Billena, death threats will not stop the Catholic Church from criticizing government.
"If we believe in the Gospel, and Jesus said, When people threaten you, speak evil against you, rejoice and be glad, your name is great in the Kingdom of God,' if we believe that, that should not discourage us," Pabillo said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Billena said the mission of priests – to uplift the dignity of people – remains despite the death threats.
"Kung matatakot kami," Billena said, "magsialis na kami sa pagiging pari." (If we will be afraid, then we should leave the priesthood.)
More than a battle of words, it is now a test of faith. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.