A third priest has been gunned down in the Philippines since December, prompting the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to condemn the killings and call for an impartial investigation of the case. The church also asks anyone who might have information about the murders to cooperate with police.
On Monday, June 11, Nueva Ecija priest Father Richmond Nilo, 43, was shot inside a community chapel as he was preparing to say Sunday Mass.
Reports said a gunman shot Fr Nilo at least seven times through the chapel’s window before the assailant and a companion sped away in a car.
On April 29, Father Mark Anthony Yuaga Ventura, a parish priest in Gattaran town in Cagayan, was shot to death as he was blessing children and talking to choir members after Mass.
The death of Fr Marcelino Paez, 72, started the spate of priest killings. He was shot and killed in Nueva Ecija as he was driving along a roadway by two gunmen on a motorcycle.
The murders come amidst Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” that has resulted in more than 16,000 unsolved homicide cases in a year-and-a-half.
Human Rights Watch contends that many of the murders have been carried out by the Philippine National Police (PNP) or vigilante groups incited by the campaign. Many of the dead are urban poor.
Large-scale extrajudicial violence as a crime solution was a marker of Duterte’s 22-year tenure as mayor of Davao City and the cornerstone of his presidential campaign. On the eve of his 2016 election victory, Duterte told a crowd of more than 300,000: “If I make it to the presidential palace I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you.”
Duterte has vowed to continue the campaign as police dispute the number killed as well as allegations of widespread extrajudicial or vigilante killings.
Philippines Police Deputy Director General Ramon Apolinario cited “encounters” between drug-related groups as a reason for the deaths, adding that “even our own forces have been victimized.”
The public also remains largely in favor of Duterte’s campaign. A poll in December found that while 78 percent of Filipinos feared they or someone they know will be a victim of extrajudicial killings, 85 percent of respondents were nevertheless satisfied with the ongoing operations in the drug war, according to CNN Philippines.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has been a vocal critic of the war on drugs. In February, the group denounced the effort as a “reign of terror” in poor communities.
Following the most recent priest killing, Cabanatuan Bishop Sofronio Bancud said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms and deeply mourn the brutal murder of Fr Richmond V. Nilo, and the escalating violence and culture of impunity in the country, even against helpless clergymen,” Bancud said.
“Indeed it is a tragic day and an irreparable loss for the local Church of Cabanatuan and for all people of goodwill. May his death lead us all to love and live the Catholic faith which Fr Richmond, in his nearly 17 years in the priesthood, undoubtedly loved.”
At a press conference on Monday, PNP chief Director General Oscar Albayalde said he has ordered all local police chiefs nationwide to “coordinate” with all priests. He said he has instructed chiefs of police to reach out to priests in their communities and ask them if they face threats to their lives.