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Richard Heydarian: The Catholic Church contends with Duterte's rule

Religious leaders are finding it hard to stay neutral, and many aren't

The powerful Philippine Catholic Church has long taken a quiet approach to the country's secular rulers. Not any more.

Shaken to its venerable foundations by the rise of President Rodrigo Duterte, the church has hit back with unprecedented strength against the Manila strongman.

Unlike any of his predecessors, including even former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine president has brazenly confronted the Catholic hierarchy.

From calling priests hypocrites to joking about the creation of his own personal church (Iglesia ni Duterte), the controversial leader has crossed one red line after the other with surprising impunity.

In response, the Catholic Church has largely abandoned its softly-softly tradition in favor of more overt political opposition to the president, particularly over his crackdown on suspected drug dealers.

The church has described Duterte's bloody campaign as "anti-poor," since it disproportionately targets slums and indigent communities, where the bulk of extrajudicial killings have been reported. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines has described the campaign as a "reign of terror" that has created a climate of impunity in which "many are killed not because of drugs" and those "who kill them are not brought to account."

But basking in skyrocketing popularity and firmly in control of key institutions of the state, Duterte has gradually tightened the noose around his religious opponents.

Recently, the Duterte-leaning Congress refused to renew the operating license of media outlets tied to the Catholic Church. In the emerging clash between the church and the state, the latter seems, at least for now, to have the upper hand, but the fight is far from over.

On the surface, it is hard to overstate the sheer influence and vast resources of the Philippine Catholic Church, which has played a central role in the country's history since the advent of Spanish imperial rule in the 16th century.

As many as four out of five Filipinos identify with the church, which owns billions of dollars in land and property, enjoys comprehensive exemption from taxes and is largely seen as one of the pillars of power in Philippine politics.

For long, the Filipino people have been accustomed to a symbiotic relationship between the church and the state, which was only temporarily broken toward the end of the Marcos presidency in the 1980s.

Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle, delivers a message in metro Manila in February 2017 to the participants of the "procession" against the so-called war on drugs and other policies.   © Reuters

Amid deepening political crisis and economic decay, the Catholic hierarchy then ended its so-called critical collaboration with the dictator and threw its support behind the 1986 People Power Revolution, which ushered in a new democratic era.

Over the past three decades, however, new evangelist organizations have begun to challenge the church's hegemony. Among them are influential groups such as Iglesia ni Cristo, El Shaddai, Jesus is Lord Church, and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, led by Duterte's friend and spiritual mentor Apollo Carreon Quiboloy.

These groups are composed of perhaps 10 million to 15 million followers, who vote along the preferences of their spiritual leaders -- who themselves openly welcome politicians' courtship during elections.

Thanks to this phenomenon of "bloc voting," these new religious groups have emerged as virtual "swing states" during tightly contested elections.

The democratization of the Philippine religious landscape, thus, has dramatically diminished the power of the Catholic Church, which has struggled to impose its political agenda on contemporary leaders.

In fact, President Benigno Aquino, Duterte's immediate predecessor, managed to pass and enact a reproductive health bill that was openly opposed by the church's hierarchy.

Under the RH Law, as it is commonly known, the Philippine state can directly assist family planning through the provision of free contraceptives. For the Catholic Church, this was tantamount to state's sponsorship of immorality and sexual decadence.

In many ways, Duterte has simply built on his liberal predecessor's confrontation with the religious institution, including by giving full-fledged support for the implementation of the RH Law.

Except the strongman has taken the battle to an entirely new level by challenging the moral right of the Catholic hierarchy to even criticize his policies. In an interview, Duterte talked about his trauma from allegedly being sexually molested at a very young age by a Catholic priest. Overtime, he has insulted priests as "sons of bitches," "monkeys," "child molesters" and "corrupt," openly challenging them to a "showdown."

The church has been at the forefront of major anti-government protests, especially over the death of thousands of suspected drug users and minors such as Kian delos Santos, a teenager who was allegedly murdered by police forces in front of a closed-circuit TV camera.

In the past year, the Catholic Church has formed a coalition of convenience with a curious melange of left-leaning civil society organizations as well as liberals, who have collectively condemned Duterte's human rights record.

In an unusually proactive move, the church has also offered to protect cops unwilling to engage in extrajudicial killings, while accompanying others during their anti-drug raids to ensure human rights and due process are not violated by law enforcers.

In response, Duterte and his legislative allies have openly supported the passage of laws to legalize same-sex marriage and abortion, two causes vociferously opposed by the Catholic Church.

Months before the Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission revoked the operating license of leading online news website Rappler, Congress refused to renew the license of 54 radio stations under the wing of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines.

The Duterte administration hopes to coax and cajole the church toward dialogue, especially with the appointment of Davao City Archbishop Romulo Valles -- a long-time acquaintance of the president during his mayoral days -- as the new head of the CBCP. Valles is replacing Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, a vocal critic of the president.

Though the Catholic Church has emerged as an unlikely guardian of the Philippines' liberal democracy, it is confronting an increasingly powerful opponent in the person of Duterte. For now, political momentum is on the side of the Filipino leader, but the church is bracing for a long struggle against the strongman.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author. His latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan).

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