3 Philippine priests say they, Catholic bishops under threat

MANILA, Philippines — Three Philippine Catholic priests said Monday they and some church leaders who are critical of the president's bloody crackdown on illegal drugs have received death threats from unknown people.

Father Robert Reyes and two other priests told reporters that they are hesitant to seek protection from the police because they are behind the anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of mostly poor drug suspects dead, but are considering seeking court protection.

The three vowed they would not stop speaking out against the drug killings, which have been condemned by many Western governments and human rights groups and sparked at least two complaints of mass murder against President Rodrigo Duterte at the International Criminal Court.

Duterte, a former prosecutor and mayor known for his tough anti-crime approach, has denied ordering extrajudicial killings but often publicly threatens drug suspects with death and encourages police to shoot those who threaten law enforcers.

"We're not safe now," said Reyes, an activist priest prominent for running long distances to publicize campaigns for human rights, democracy and civil liberties. "After this, the death threats may become real."

Another of the priests, Albert Alejo, said the cellphone messages included one on Feb. 10 that said, "Your days are numbered you animal."

"You'll be celebrating your last Masses because the next Mass for the dead will be for you," the priests quoted another message as saying.

Reyes said the killings of three priests, including one who was about to celebrate Mass, and threats against several bishops and priests underscore the alarming number of attacks on the clergy under Duterte. He said there is no evidence linking Duterte to the threats but that the president's verbal assaults against church officials could encourage attacks.

"The deadly words of Duterte against Catholics are like a dagger pointed at us," Reyes said. "The message is clear. It's not only people that he wanted dead but our faith as well."

Duterte's unprecedented broadsides against the Catholic Church, which has criticized the drug killings, have put the influential institution that helped lead two "people power" revolts against two past presidents in a quandary over how to respond. Opinion polls show Duterte has remained popular despite his attacks on the church.

He once called Pope Francis a "son of a bitch" for sparking a huge traffic jam in Manila during a visit and regularly lashes out at Catholic bishops over sex abuses by the clergy. Duterte mocks the Catholic faith and sparked anger in the country, Asia's largest Catholic-majority nation, by calling God "stupid."

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