After calling the country's Catholic bishops "useless fools" who should be "killed
," Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
has now warned anyone against harming priests and prelates. The president made the warning after being told that people close to his family have threatened bishops and priests critical of his administration's policies. "Do not touch the priests, they have nothing to do with politics," said Duterte. "Do not try to do it," he said, adding that "a religious has nothing to do with the vagaries of life." "Lay off! Stop threatening them or you’ll have to deal with me," said the president in a speech before a political gathering in the central Philippines on Feb. 24. On Feb. 26, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan
confirmed in an interview that he has received death threats
over the past two weeks. "I have been receiving them but I do not know who they are from," said the prelate whose diocese has become known as a "killing field" of suspected drug users and dealers. Human rights groups estimate that more than 20,000 people have died in Duterte's "total war" against illegal drugs that started in 2016. When asked if he thought the threats to his life had something to do with his criticism of the anti-narcotics campaign, Bishop David said "Your guess is as good as mine." Despite the threats, the prelate said he is not planning to limit his movements, although he said he would "also watch my back." "No threat or intimidation can stop me from carrying on with my spiritual and pastoral duties as a bishop," he said. "We draw strength and courage from God through prayer and discernment," said Bishop David. "I get spiritual support from a whole army of contemplatives serving as my prayer partners," he added. Duterte earlier said he had received a message from Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila expressing concern over threats against members of the clergy. In his message, Cardinal Tagle told the president that, "some priests received death threats from someone claiming to be working for the president’s family." "Just to let you know, somebody might be trying to destroy you. Thanks, we pray," Duterte quoted the cardinal as saying in his message.
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"Once you touch nuns, priests, or imams — don’t harm them. Those are religious people. You know them, we’ll have an encounter. They are not involved," said the president. Father Jerome Secillano of the public affairs committee of the bishops' conference warned that attacking members of the clergy would have a backlash on Duterte’s administration. "This will hurt the administration in the long run. It will reflect badly on the president who had previously threatened to have some bishops killed," said the priest. "We need to determine if indeed there are groups out to harm members of the clergy. If there are, what can they get out of it? The least they can do is to eliminate voices of dissent and criticism," he added. In December, Duterte said Catholic bishops were "useless fools" who do nothing but criticize his administration. He described the Catholic Church as "the most hypocritical institution."