They shoot priests, don’t they?
Father Richmond Nilo was about to say Sunday Mass at the Nuestra Señora de la Nieve (Our Lady of the Snows) chapel, in Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija, when the shots rang out. The assassin, stationed by a window, fired at least seven times; at least four bullets hit Father Richmond.
He died on the spot, in front of about five dozen horrified churchgoers, at the foot of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Unlike the venerable legend after which the chapel was named, it wasn’t unseasonal snow but a shower of blood that filled and marked the ground on which he had stood just moments before.
Father Richmond was the third priest killed in six months, and the fourth targeted for assassination. On April 29, in Gattaran, Cagayan, Fr. Mark Anthony Ventura was killed after saying Sunday Mass; he was with a group of children, blessing them, and talking to members of the local choir, when a lone gunman on a motorcycle rode up to him and shot him in the head and the chest. Death was immediate.
On Dec. 4, 2017, in Jaen, also in Nueva Ecija, Fr. Marcelito Paez was ambushed by motorcycle-riding gunmen. Earlier that day, the longtime
activist-priest had helped secure the release of a political prisoner in Cabanatuan City. Though wounded, he was able to roll his car window down and tell the gunmen, “I’m a priest, I’m a priest.” He later died in the hospital.
The fourth assassination attempt took place only a few days before the attack on Father Richmond. On June 6, Fr. Rey Urmeneta, driving his car, was also ambushed in Calamba, Laguna. The former chaplain of the Philippine National Police sustained two wounds, but was later reported as being in stable condition at the hospital.
Priests have been killed before; Philippine history is witness to the sacrifice of Filipino and foreign priests who have been targeted because their faith and their good works troubled conscienceless men. To name only a few: missionaries Fr. Godofredo Alingal in 1981, Fr. Nery Lito Satur in 1991, Fr. Rhoel Gallardo in 2000. Perhaps the most famous of them all were executed under state orders in 1872: Fathers Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora.
But four assassination attempts and three deaths in six months? These are highly unusual, and require urgent attention. This is the most number of priests killed in recent memory; we would need to go back to the most serious upheavals in our history to look for parallels.
Despite the growth in other religions, and the new respect for Islam as the faith of millions of Filipinos (indeed, today’s religious occasion is a national holiday), the Catholic faith remains by far the country’s largest religion. Catholic bishops retain a residual reservoir of good will and influence. And priests remain respected pillars of their respective communities. For Filipino families, then, the murder of a priest remains doubly shocking.
At the least, these acts of violence against priests show a deterioration in peace and order, under the most peace-and-order-oriented administration since 1972. They are an indictment of the administration’s competence in and capacity for crime-fighting.
At worst—well, at worst we must raise questions about the Duterte administration’s complicity in the culture of impunity which enables motorcycling gunmen to assassinate priests at will. When the President kissed that married woman in Seoul, South Korea for the entertainment of his audience earlier this month, what was she doing on stage in the first place? She and another overseas Filipino worker had been invited to receive copies of a book the President was giving away: the late journalist Aries Rufo’s “Altar of Secrets.” The book is an investigation into different aspects of corruption in the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, including violations of the vow of celibacy. Why would the President, visiting another country, give copies of such a book away?
For that matter, why would the President repeat accusations against the Church in his various speeches, or respond to the killing of Father Mark Anthony not with anger but rather with a license to impute all sorts of allegations against him? In an anguished open letter written after Father Richmond was killed, the clergy of the archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan asked the administration to stop the “verbal persecution of the Catholic Church”—because such verbal attacks can lead “unwittingly” to physical ones. Wittingly, too.
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