The bishops of the Philippines have issued a pastoral letter accusing the government of undermining the country’s democratic institutions.

The two-page letter, dated July 16, was released ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte’s annual State of the Nation Address and after the passage of controversial anti-terrorism legislation.

“While a semblance of democracy is still in place and our democratic institutions somehow continue to function, we are already like the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water,” said the letter, which was signed by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, acting president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of the Philippines.

The government responded to the letter July 19, the same day it was made public, strongly rejecting its arguments.

Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s chief presidential legal counsel, claimed that the letter violated the constitutional separation of Church and state.

In the letter, the bishops said that they had received a request for prayers for Hong Kong from Burmese Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. They drew parallels between the new National Security Act that threatened human rights in Hong Kong and the recently passed Anti-Terror Act in the Philippines.

“Apparently, the Chinese government assures the people of Hong Kong that they have nothing to be afraid of, as long as ‘they don’t get involved in any activity that threatens national security.’ Why does this sound eerily familiar to us Filipinos? Because we are in a similar situation,” it said.

The bishops expressed “disbelief” that the anti-terror bill was fast-tracked despite a lockdown intended to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, which had killed 1,835 people in the Philippines as of July 20, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

They also criticized lawmakers for ignoring objections to the bill voiced by lawyers, academics, business leaders, NGOs and religious groups.

“Alas, the political pressure from above seemed to weigh more heavily on our legislators than the voices from below. It only made more evident the blurring of lines between legislative and the executive branches of our government,” they wrote.

The letter took issue with the government’s response that only terrorists needed to be afraid of the new law.

“Have we not heard of people active in social advocacies who are accused of being communists? Have we forgotten the bishops, priests and religious who were included among those falsely charged by the Philippine National Police with crimes of sedition and inciting to sedition?” it said.

“Are we not aware of the thousands of people who have been killed in police operations on the basis of mere suspicion of involvement in criminality and illegal drugs?”

Tens of thousands of people may have died amid a crackdown on the drug trade launched by Duterte after he was elected president in 2016. Human rights groups have accused police of killing people with no connection to illicit drugs. In March 2019, the Philippines withdrew from the International Criminal Court after it opened a preliminary inquiry into the country’s drug war.

The bishops’ letter also lamented the closure of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcasting network, following a dispute with the government.

“Is it not evident to us how this pattern of intimidation creates an atmosphere detrimental to the freedom of expression in our country?” the bishops wrote, welcoming challenges to the constitutionality of the Anti-Terror Act at the country’s Supreme Court.

They compared the present situation in the Philippines to that of 1972, when President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law, ushering in a period of dictatorship.

“The return of ‘warrantless detentions’ through this new law cannot but remind us of the initial moves in 1972 that eventually led to the fall of democracy and the rise of a dictatorial regime that terrorized the country for 14 years,” the bishops wrote.

“It all began when an elected president also legalized the ‘ASSOs’ (arrest, search and seizure orders). It was from there that we gradually sank into the mire of authoritarian rule. Knowing how, in just the recent past, the law has been used too many times as a weapon to suppress legitimate dissent and opposition, we cannot but share in the apprehensions expressed by the lawyers and ordinary citizens that filed the petition against the said infamous law before the Supreme Court.”

The bishops praised public officials who continued to resist political pressures, but said they wished there were more of them.

Duterte, an outspoken critic of the Church, is expected to end his term as president June 30, 2022. He is scheduled to give his fifth State of the Nation Address July 27.

The bishops ended the pastoral letter with a prayer asking God to overcome the country’s divisions and give public servants “the courage to stand their ground on the side of truth and justice.”