JAKARTA, Indonesia — After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s succession of tirades against the country’s Catholic Church leaders, bishops hardly expected a presidential climb down, even after their entreaty asking the government to ease up on a violent anti-drugs campaign. 

In less than eight months, more than 7,600 people, mostly drug traffickers and drug users, have been executed extrajudicially, often by a gunshot to the head, their bodies left on the blood-strewn street as a warning. Some have been killed in police operations and some have been murdered by unidentified paramilitary squads. 

The bloodshed prompted a February pastoral letter signed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, which said, “This traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers.”

The letter was read out at Masses around the 7,500-island archipelago, where 83% of the 102.6 million population is Catholic — by far the biggest Catholic population in Asia — and where passionate, public displays of devotion are commonplace. 

But the voluble president, true to form, was defiant. “You Catholics, if you believe in your priests and bishops, you stay with them. If you want to go to heaven, then go to them,” he said. “Now, if you want to end drugs … I will go to hell. Come join me,” added Duterte, who has said in the past that he was sexually abused as a child by a Jesuit priest.

Duterte’s retort was mild compared to some of his past rants, such as a June 2016 speech in which he repeated his view that Church leaders in the Philippines are “hypocrites” who sought money from government and who engaged in secret, illicit sexual relationships.

“I challenge you now. I challenge the Catholic Church. You are full of s---,” Duterte said, waving a book called Altar of Secrets, which depicts allegations of sexual and financial scandals in the Philippine Catholic Church. ”You are all filthy,” added Duterte, who had only been elected president a month earlier.

In September 2016, as his anti-drug bloodletting was in full swing, Duterte said, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have…,” while pointing at himself. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews; now there are 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said.

 

Other Challenges

And Duterte’s presidency has brought other challenges for the Church in the Philippines. A plan to restore the death penalty would bring “great shame” to the Philippines, according to Archbishop Villegas, as the proposed law change would mean death for 21 crimes such as treason, some forms of murder and rape, and violent car thefts, as well as some drug offenses.

Another point of contention has been Duterte’s promotion of contraceptives, saying they should be available in high schools across the country, a move that has been met with Church criticism, which was predictably followed by a tirade alleging sexual and financial impropriety by clergy.

Before winning the country’s highest office in May 2016, Duterte had already made a name for himself for anti-Catholic outbursts. More than a year before Duterte won the presidential election, Pope Francis visited the Philippines, in early 2015. Around 6 million people attended the papal Mass, braving a downpour, and hundreds of thousands jostled on sidewalks for a glimpse at the papal motorcade. Duterte, apparently unmoved by the vast crowds and the display of mass devotion, ended up apologizing to Francis for calling him a “son of a whore” after getting caught up in a traffic jam in Manila that he blamed on the Pope.

Nonetheless, the Filipino bishops’ conference did not endorse or reject candidates before the election, merely counseling the 54-million strong electorate to vote according to their consciences. 

After a raucous campaign, in which Duterte was compared for his incendiary rhetoric to now-U.S. President Donald Trump, Duterte was elected president of the Philippines with almost 40% of the vote — a landslide that saw him win almost twice as many votes as the second- and third-placed contenders combined.

On the campaign trail, Duterte wowed crowds by vowing to fill Manila Bay with the corpses of criminals and lambasting the alleged elitism of other candidates. While the Philippine economy has emerged as one of the fastest growing in Asia during the current decade, poverty is widespread. Around 10 million Filipinos work overseas, sending much-needed remittances home to family members who otherwise struggle financially in a country where the gross domestic product per head is just below $3,000, according to 2015 World Bank calculations. 

 

Mayoral Record

As mayor of Davao, Duterte cleaned up a dangerous and chaotic city, personally taking part in extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals. Duterte’s macho-man image and fearsome willingness to trample over rule-of-law norms earned him the respect and support of millions of Filipinos exasperated at wealth inequality, which is seen as protected by a political establishment where an estimated 70% of elected lawmakers are members of political dynasties — wealthy elites who keep local and national congressional seats in the family for generations. 

But Duterte shocked some — particularly overseas — with a campaign speech in which he said, supposedly in jest or anger, that he should have been the first to rape Jacqueline Hamill, a Australian Pentecostalist missionary who was gang-raped and murdered during a 1989 prison riot in Davao, the main city in the southern Philippines where Duterte was mayor. Supporters accused media of misrepresenting or misunderstanding their candidate, who, they contended, was merely talking in a way similar to Filipino men bantering in a bar over a few beers.

Duterte also insulted then-U.S. President Barack Obama, telling him to “go to h---” and calling him “a son of a b----.”

Since taking office, he has sought better relations with China, despite Sino-Filipino territorial rivalries in the South China Sea, as well as U.S. attempts to support the Philippines against China’s enormous economic and military heft. 

But Duterte wants Chinese investment in the Philippines, particularly financing for road and rail upgrades. Visiting Beijing in October 2016, Duterte hinted that his country’s close ties with the U.S. would be loosened — a “separation,” according to Duterte, who has also talked up improving relations with Russia, another strategic rival of the U.S.

 

Duterte and Trump

However, Duterte said he expects relations with the United States, which occupied the Philippines from 1898 until World War II, to improve under the Trump presidency.

“He is a billionaire. His wife is very beautiful. I envy him,” Duterte said of Trump. The two leaders talked by phone in December, and, according to Duterte, they hit it off. 

“He was quite sensitive also to our worry about drugs. And he wishes me well ... in my campaign; and he said that ... we are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way,” Duterte said of Trump. The comments were made after he appointed real estate magnate Jose Antonio, Trump’s business partner in the Philippines, as a special trade envoy to the U.S. 

The Philippines will host a major Asia-Pacific summit in late 2017, which Trump is expected to attend, along with leaders such as Xi Jinping of China and Shinzo Abe of Japan, who last weekend stayed at Trump’s Florida resort during a bilateral meeting.

Trump’s backing for Duterte’s “War on Drugs” is likely to make Church leaders’ efforts to stall the bloodshed more challenging. 

But in recent days, some of the excesses of that campaign have prompted even Duterte to rethink, which may encourage Church leaders to keep importuning the president.

Using the drug war as cover, a police drug squad kidnapped and murdered Jee Ick-joo, a South Korean businessman — strangling him in the headquarters of the Philippines National Police.

Duterte, reportedly furious and possibly concerned at jeopardizing economic ties with its wealthy neighbor, ordered the drug war to be handed over to the local equivalent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, supported by the army.

Simon Roughneen, a Southeast Asia correspondent for several publications, 

has reported from the Philippines five times in recent years,

including during the 2010 and 2016 national elections.