Police said Wednesday they are hunting five suspects in the murder of Fr. Richmond Nilo in Nueva Ecija over the weekend as the Palace condemned the killing of priests.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, denied accusations that he is persecuting priests despite the spate of killings of clergymen.
“I read in some media reports that some were asking me to stop persecuting priests. But I did not say anything,” Duterte said.
“You know, a priest is no better than me. Some priests even have two wives,” he said.
Chief Supt. Amado Corpus said CCTV footage showed two motorcycle riders on a road near the chapel just before Nilo was gunned down before he was able to say Mass.
A third suspect on a motorcycle was seen serving as a lookout, while two others were inside a getaway vehicle, Corpuz said.
Nilo was the third Catholic priest shot dead by unknown gunmen in the last six months, sparking impassioned calls for justice from officers of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.
Unidentified gunmen killed Fr. Marcelito Paez, 72, in Nueva Ecija in December 2017, and Fr. Mark Anthony Ventura in Cagayan province in April.
Malacañang on Wednesday vowed to put in jail those responsible for the murders.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the government and the Philippine National Police have mounted investigations into these crimes and have vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“The PNP shall also be working closely with the Church, especially the hierarchy and the clergy, on measures to protect our priests,” Roque said in a statement..
The Palace official said the government will give priority to the investigation into the deaths of the priests.
“The government is concerned because just like the killing of media [people], once you kill a priest, you violate not only his right to life but also his right to freedom of religion,” he said.
He said the President himself has ordered an intensified campaign against criminality.
“In this nationwide drive, criminals will seek to block our efforts by sowing division and creating animosity, even exploiting crimes like the killings of priests,” Roque said.
“We must stand united against these purveyors of crime and together advance the peace and security of the nation and the Church,” he added.
In an interview with the ANC news channel, CBCP executive secretary for public affairs Fr. Jerome Secillano said priests and laymen were puzzled at the President’s constant tirades against the Catholic Church.
“We are trying to comprehend why the President hates the church... Personally, maybe because in the past there were churchmen who criticized him. Perhaps he has not forgotten it yet that’s why he continues to do the attack,” he said.
He said the church was always open to a dialogue with the President over any problems he had with the Catholic community.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros on Wednesday asked if Catholic priests who were critical of the administration were being silenced.
“Is there a systematic attempt to kill Catholic priests who are critical of the administration?” she asked, noting that the killings were not isolated incidents as they followed verbal attacks by the President.
She said these killings further reinforced the culture of impunity to silence valid Church-led criticisms on state policies, particularly those with respect to human rights and due process.
“I fear that the President’s verbal attacks, as well as the dismissive attitude towards the killings, may inspire more priest-murders and other acts of violence on members of religious communities,” Hontiveros said.
The senator has asked the committee on public order, led by Senator Panfilo Lacson, to investigate the killings.
“Yes, I will hear it, but it has to wait until after the formal referral of her resolution is made to the public order committee when the third regular session starts on July 23,” Lacson said.