THE Philippines is looking to arm priests and community leaders following the deaths of three clergymen since December and amid its controversial war on drugs.
The Philippines National Police (PNP) on Tuesday said it was willing to help arm priests in wake of the recent shootings of the clergymen, which has raised alarm in the country.
UCA News quoted police chief Oscar Albayalde as saying that priests could be provided with the legal means of arming themselves “if they request it and if we think that there are threats to their lives.”
“We will assist them to go through the [licensing] process for them to feel safe.”
The police’s announcement came after the deadly shooting of Father Richmond Villaflor Nilo on June 10 after gunmen opened fire on him while he was preparing to celebrate Mass in Nueva Ecija province. A week before the incident, Father Rey Urmeneta of St. Michael the Archangel parish in Calamba City survived an attack by two gunmen.
On April 29, Father Mark Anthony Ventura was also shot dead by motorcycle-riding gunmen after officiating Mass in the northern town of Gattaran.
In December, Father Marcelito Paez, a parish priest in Jaen, Nueva Ecija province was also killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen.
The deaths come amid criticisms by clergyman against the country’s war on drugs. The police, however, insist that these were “isolated cases”.
Despite the spate of attacks, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines opposed the idea of arming priests for their personal safety.
Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles stressed that it is part of the priests’ ministry to face risks, Philstar reported.
“I would strongly oppose to arm the priests. We are men of God, men of the Church and it is part of our ministry to face (not always) but to face dangers, to face deaths if one may say that way. But we would do it just what Jesus did,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Philippines’ interior ministry said it plans to acquire pistols for community leaders willing to fight crime and drugs, prompting concern it could fuel even more violence in the country’s notoriously bloody crackdown.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said he was considering arming community leaders, known as barangay captains, after consulting with the police and intelligence community.
He last week vowed to provide the same legal protection to barangay captains as he did soldiers or police, and they “will never go to jail” if they shot suspected criminals in the performance of their duty.
Martin Dino, the interior department undersecretary responsible for the country’s 42,000 barangays, said handguns would be provided for free, or private purchases subsidised, but only for barangay captains not involved in illegal drugs.
Duterte has repeatedly said thousands of community officials were involved in the trade, without elaborating.
“The condition is that the barangay captain should fight drugs and crime. If he is conniving with criminals, he could be the one shot,” Dino told Reuters.
Duterte’s signature war on crime and drugs has killed thousands of people and caused international alarm.
Activists and Duterte’s political opponents say the campaign is overwhelmingly targeting users and small-time peddlers in poor communities and accuse police of systematically executing suspects, often based on weak intelligence.
The authorities reject that and say all those killed were drug dealers who put up violent resistance and left police with no choice but to shoot them.
The plan to arm civilians is supported by the association of barangay officials, according to its president, Edmund Abesamis.
Barangay captains without firearms were reluctant to report illegal drug activities, for fear of being targeted by gangs, he told CNN Philippines on Wednesday.
Activist group Rise Up for Life and for Rights, said the government was obsessed with instilling fear among communities, rather than tackling the root causes of drug addiction.
“Arming the barangay captains is another foolish approach that would create power play among local officers on the ground,” said a spokeswoman for the group, adding that communities had seen enough “tyrannical and fascist attacks” during Duterte’s war on drugs.
Additional reporting by Reuters