Catholic bishops in the Philippines have criticized the government's dismissal of the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel as a mere "maritime incident."
Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said the government should stand up for Filipino fishermen after the Chinese vessel reportedly rammed the fishing boat on June 9.
"The government has a duty to protect its citizens and its territory. It should not allow itself to be bullied and let its people suffer," the prelate said in a statement.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte described the incident as a "little maritime incident" that politicians had made worse because of irresponsible statements.
Bishop Pabillo, however, said the incident should not be treated lightly because it was "a serious matter that should be resolved and not treated as a mere incident."
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Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon said the president’s statement showed a "bias" toward China
, adding that "Duterte is selective in dispensing justice."
"This is a sign that his judgment cannot be relied upon on serious moral and social issues," added the prelate.
Various groups have slammed pronouncements made by the president and government officials in downplaying the sinking.
The Philippine boat was anchored in disputed waters near the Reed Bank, when it was hit by a Chinese trawler and sank around midnight on June 9.
Reports said the crew members were thrown into the water, but instead of stopping to help the Filipino fishermen
, the Chinese trawler sailed away.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who at first condemned the incident, has since backtracked and said on June 19 that what happened was "maybe an accident."
"I think it's just an accident, based on information we got from the crew. Maybe the other side did not intend to bump them," he said.
The Philippines' Foreign Affairs Department has filed a diplomatic protest and has brought the incident to the attention of the United Nations International Maritime Organization.
Duterte, however, called for calm, calling it "just a collision" of two boats.
A Chinese foreign ministry official earlier also described the incident as "an accidental collision between two fishing boats at sea."
Philippine opposition politicians condemned the statements, with one senator saying Duterte's statement was "very self-limiting" and "insulting" to the Filipino people.
Senator Risa Hontiveros said the president's remarks showed him as someone who was "fearless and cruel against the poor, uncouth and disrespectful to women and democracy advocates, but sheepish when it comes to China."
Relations between the Philippines and China have historically been cordial, but have suffered in recent years due to the worsening South China Sea
When Duterte came to power in 2016, he tried to remedy relations at the expense of its relationship with the United States, a longtime ally.
China, meanwhile, aims for greater influence over the Philippines and the region, in general, while combating American influence, according to observers.