A call by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to “lay off” religious leaders has been welcomed by a leading archbishop in the country.
“I hope and pray that the president is serious. Instead of developing animosity and instead of finding ways of disagreement, we can collaborate and work together with the community,” Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Saturday.
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.
On Dec. 5, the controversial leader said, “these bishops, kill them, those fools are good for nothing. All they do is criticize.”
Those remarks came just over a week after he threatened to have the “head cut off” an unnamed bishop called “David” - although believed to be Duterte critic Bishop of Caloocan, Pablo Virgilio David.
David later confirmed to the media that he had received death threats from unknown people.
On Monday, Duterte told supporters his quarrel with the Catholic Church is “personal,” and people shouldn’t use violence against the hierarchy.
“You, who are drug addicts, don’t harm bishops and cardinals because they are not involved in the political ruckus,” the president said.
“Do not try to do it. The religious has nothing to do with the vagaries of life. Lay off … Once you touch a nun and priest or imam … Don’t harm them because they are religious people. If you touch them, we will have to fight,” he continued.
Palma told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that he believes this is the direction the president should be taking in light of the upcoming general elections.
“It would not help finding more enemies,” the archbishop said.
“I’m happy over one person who tries to change in that sense. I hope and pray that there is always a room for improvement,” he added.
However, the president’s call for his followers not to physically harm religious leaders doesn’t mean that his war against the Catholic Church is over.
In the same speech where he called on his followers to “lay off” the bishops, he claimed the Catholic Church would disappear in 25 years due to sexual abuse scandals.
“People won’t forget the ways of the Catholic clergy. When they get horny, the sons of bitches, they go after nuns. If they’re gay, they go after young boys. Who needs a religion like that? And then you keep giving to the collection and then the priest will just give it to his mistress,” the president said.
Duterte has claimed he was abused by a priest when attending Ateneo de Davao High School, a Jesuit-run institution, in the late 1950s.
David, the bishop who has received most of the president’s ire, took to Facebook to refute Duterte’s claim that the Church would disappear.
“A lot of people have said the same thing many centuries ago. Some have even tried to deliberately destroy the Catholic Church. Well, it appears that not even the sins and human weaknesses of her own members could destroy the Church, as long as we have the humility to admit such wrongdoings and do something to correct them, as Pope Francis is now asking us to do,” the bishop wrote.
The bishop said that when the Church is “marginalized, persecuted, or treated like a minority,” it becomes “even more alive and effective.”
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo clarified on Tuesday that Duterte was “just expressing an opinion.”
“I think that’s a healthy criticism. It will help the Catholic Church cleanse itself and purge itself of those not deserving to be there,” he said.
“He is just referring to certain men in the cloth that have violated their own vows. Even the pope has become the number one critic of the Catholic Church,” Panelo added. “He is discrediting certain men of the cloth as the pope is doing.”
The president’s conflict with the Church hasn’t hurt him in the polls of this Catholic country - the most recent poll in December showed him having an 81 percent approval rating.