Philippine police offer to help arm priests

Land dispute, aiding rape victims, among possible motives for latest clergyman murder
Philippine police offer to help arm priests

Mourners pay their respects to Father Richmond Villaflor Nilo on June 11, a day after assassins shot and killed the Catholic priest in the northern province of Nueva Ecija. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

The Philippines' national police has expressed a willingness to help arm priests who want to carry guns in the wake of recent shootings of clergymen.

National police chief Oscar Albayalde said the police are willing to provide priests with the legal means of arming themselves "if they request it and if we think that there are threats to their lives."

The official said that if members of the clergy decide to possess firearms, "we will assist them to go through the [licensing] process for them to feel safe."

Albayalde, however, said there is no cause for public alarm over the shootings because they were "isolated cases."

On June 10, Father Richmond Villaflor Nilo was shot dead by gunmen as he was about to celebrate Mass in Nueva Ecija province.

The priest's murder came less than a week after Father Rey Urmeneta of St. Michael the Archangel parish in Calamba City survived an attack by two gunmen.

Father Mark Anthony Ventura was also shot dead by motorcycle-riding gunmen on April 29 after officiating Mass in the northern town of Gattaran.

On Dec. 4, motorcycle-riding gunmen also killed Father Marcelito Paez, a parish priest in Jaen, Nueva Ecija province.


No to guns

Despite the attacks, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines reiterated its opposition to arming priests.

Conference president, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, said priests are supposed to be men of peace, not violence. 

"We are men of God, men of the church and it is part of our ministry to face dangers, to face death," said Archbishop Valles. 

Cebu Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Florencio, apostolic administrator of the Military Ordinariate of the Philippines, said arming priests would have negative consequences. 

"It will create more chaos, it will not solve anything," he said. 

The recent killings prompted Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila to question the proliferation of firearms in the country.

"Why is it that there are so many guns out there?" he said, adding that there is a need to study the country's policies on the production, sale, purchase, and ownership of firearms.

"Let us hope that the day won't come wherein purchasing a gun would be easier than buying rice," said the prelate in a statement.



Investigators are looking at three possible motives in the killing of Father Nilo, including his involvement in land disputes, his support for rape victims, and his views on other religious groups.

"We are still gathering evidence and witnesses to establish the motive," said police regional director Amador Corpus.

He said at least five suspects had been identified.

The police official said Father Nilo was a known supporter of "aggrieved groups." He said the priest had also been helping people involved in a land dispute.

Police chief Albayalde said the recent killings of priests should not be a gauge for the overall crime situation in the country.

"These are isolated cases. But then again, these killings should not be disregarded," he said.

In the Senate, Senato Risa Hontiveros filed a resolution seeking an congressional inquiry into the killings.

"Is there a systematic attempt to kill Catholic priests who are critical of the administration?" asked the senator, adding that she thought the killings were not isolated incidents.

She noted that it came on the heels of the verbal attacks made by President Rodrigo Duterte on Catholic Church leaders who are critical of the Duterte administration.

"The killings further reinforce the culture of impunity to silence valid church-led criticisms on state policies, particularly those with respect to human rights and due process?" said Hontiveros.

She said the president's verbal attacks on priests and his "dismissive attitude" toward the killings "may inspire more priest-murders and other acts of violence on members of religious communities."

Leonel Abasola contributed to this report. 

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