Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, appears constantly on the 24-hour TV news channels playing in Filipino restaurants in Metro Vancouver.
The autocratic anti-Catholic populist is also on the front pages of ethnic newspapers in Filipino grocery stores near the Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain Station and other Filipino neighbourhoods in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond.
The strongman’s rugged face jumps off the leaflets distributed in Vancouver this week by some Filipino-Canadians, members of the third largest minority group in the country. The politicking is part of the lead-up to the May 13 midterm elections in the country of 105 million, which has 10 million expatriates overseas, many of them allowed to cast ballots.
This Easter weekend, Filipino Catholics in Canada are having to deal with how the Philippines president urged his followers in December to kill or rob Catholic priests, whom he referred to as “useless tools.” He also said the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which Christians mark today, as “unworthy of belief.”
This when he’s not “joking” about raping women.
The menacing vulgarity of Duterte, who was elected in 2016 on a promise to clean up corruption and rampant drug dealing, has troubled the faithful multitudes who attend Metro Vancouver’s Roman Catholic churches, to which roughly four out of five of the city’s 134,000 Filipino-Canadians belong.
Duterte has been making life complicated for Canada’s Filipino Catholics, who regularly engage in hushed conversations about the nationalist leader. Meanwhile, local Catholic officials tread cautiously — not wanting to disturb his many admirers.
Duterte has launched a hate-filled anti-Catholic campaign that is a match for the most virulent forms of Islamophobia. A cathedral in the Philippines was bombed Jan. 27, killing 20 people. Several Catholic priests have been killed on his watch. Somehow he is getting away with it.
Duterte’s reign is full of contradictions for Filipino Catholics. His polling numbers remain strong in a country that has long been defined by the Rome-based church, which was imported to the country by Spanish missionaries and colonialists in the 1500s.
“He’s a bad talker, but he’s a good doer,” says 43-year-old Mary-Ann Pasicolan, a cashier at Plato Filipino Restaurant on Joyce Street near the SkyTrain station.
Pasicolan is also an usher at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which is a block away from the restaurant and holds seven masses each Sunday to meet the needs of its congregation, which is 95 per cent Filipino.
The other primarily Filipino churches in Metro are St. Patrick’s on Main Street, St. Paul’s in Richmond, and Immaculate Conception in North Delta. The rapid growth of the Filipino population in Canada, which rose to 851,000 in 2016 from 662,000 in 2011 — a jump of 27 per cent compared to Canada’s overall growth rate of five per cent — has been a boon for the Catholic church in Canada and its parochial schools.
Pasicolan believes, like some priests, that Duterte had to take on the drug dealers, since they have become a scourge in the Philippines compared to when she grew up there in the 1980s. She also thinks Duterte stands for the poor; others are not so sure. Pasicolan was nervous speaking about him. But, unlike most Filipinos Postmedia approached for interviews, she took the leap.
Indicative of the paradoxical feelings many Filipino Catholics hold towards Duterte, Pasicolan believes he often “goes overboard.” But she also understands why Duterte has been targeting drug dealers, even while international human rights groups have put the number of extrajudicial killings at about 20,000. The country’s rivers often cough up bullet-riddled bodies.
While Pasicolan thinks Duterte should respect the “separation of church and state,” she is especially disturbed by his constant use of profanity. She grimaces when she hears his “bad mouth.”
A poll in the Philippines found the same — that support for Duterte went down after he referred last year to the church’s “stupid God.” His poll numbers, however, have since rebounded.
Why don’t Catholic leaders take on Duterte?
Ted Alcuitas wishes Catholic priests in Canada would speak out against Duterte.
The longtime member of St. Mary’s Catholic church believes priests are too timid. The Catholic leadership in the Philippines has not been looking for a fight, says Alcuitas, a retired architect, since it’s increasingly associated with the elite that the populist has been targeting. The social justice advocate maintains the Catholic hierarchy has become very conservative.
That said, Alcuitas appreciated it when one or two bishops in the Philippines began speaking out against Duterte’s “total war” on drugs after they noticed most people being gunned down were from the poorest neighbourhoods.
It was not until late January that the Philippines’ Catholic leaders officially broke what they called their “collective silence” about his attacks. Without naming Duterte, the bishops said “the culture of violence has gradually prevailed in our land” and they challenged the “cruel words” aimed at church leaders. The bishops said they’re following the lead of Pope Francis, “who tells us that in some instances the best response is silence and prayer.”
But Alcuitas said the situation is dire. There is de facto martial law in the Philippines, he said, noting journalist Maria Ressa, a critic of Duterte recently named one of Time Magazine’s people of the year, was arrested in February.
Still, Alcuitas does not expect the priests at St. Mary’s or any other Filipino Catholic church in the city will openly talk about Duterte this Good Friday, or Sunday, or maybe ever.
Filipino Catholics can stay quiet, believing ‘their day will come.’
Why is Duterte so hostile to the Catholic church?
The strongman recently claimed he was abused by a priest as a youth, but some are not convinced of the claim. Many believe his prime motive is raw partisan politics.
Duterte is intimidating an organization that has long carried political clout. Former Philippine Catholic Cardinal Jaime Sin was successful in 1986 in ridding the country of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and in 2001 of Joseph Estrada.
But the Catholic church’s power has waned since, with the current cardinal, Luis Antonio Tagle, more acquiescent — especially after the church in 2012 lost its battle to stop the government from guaranteeing women free contraception.
It’s not as if Duterte is a champion of women. His piggish attitudes come out in multiple ways.
They include his April 2 insult that Bishop Pablo David, who had criticized Duterte’s out-of-control attacks on drug dealers in his diocese, is “the son of a whore.” That caused the bishop and some writers, including Alcuitus (who has his own website) to defend the honour of the bishop’s mother, who survived Japan’s brutal occupation of Indonesia.
But Duterte’s slander of the bishop’s mother was mild compared to other outrages.
In 2016 he “joked” he would have liked to have been the first to rape a missionary assaulted during a prison riot. In February he told fighters they should not kill female Communists rebels, but shoot them in the vagina, to render them “useless.”
As for Duterte’s Christian-bashing, Alcuitus points out inconsistencies. The president doesn’t attack influential evangelical Protestant churches in the Philippines — such as Iglesia Ni Cristo, which has 70 congregations in Canada, including a giant sanctuary on Marine Way in Burnaby. Duterte recently appointed Iglesia Ni Cristo’s leader, Eduardo Manelo, a special envoy for overseas concerns.
There are important reasons the once-powerful Catholic church does not resist Duterte’s reckless reign more strongly, says John Nery, a social analyst in the Philippines. Catholic leaders, Nery says, recognize their church has image problems, including sexual abuse by priests and priests living in luxury. Some say Duterte’s abusive language goes along with valid attempts to shake up corrupt institutions.
The Catholic church, in addition, Nery says, has a penchant for turning the other cheek when it’s under assault. That fits in with many Filipino Catholics’ martyr attitudes, he said, which lean to “let it be” and “their day will come.”
Finally, says Nery, Catholic officials seem justifiably afraid to take on a popular leader who is a bully.
The bishops’ quiet patience may be paying off, at least a little. After it became it public recently that more death threats have been made against bishops, Duterte told his vigilante-prone followers: “Do not touch the priests, they having nothing to do with politics. … Lay off!”
As Pasicolan takes a break from serving customers at her bustling Joyce Street Filipino restaurant, she says this Easter she will, like most of her Catholic brothers and sisters in Canada, be “praying for the Philippines as a whole.”
After living with her son in Canada for 12 years, however, she won’t be voting in the May election: She no longer has a Philippines passport. Still she yearns for the country to find solutions to the ravages it’s experiencing. “The country is really in a mess.”
Thinking over some the off-the-cuff comments she has made while being interviewed about the bombastic president, Pasicolan remarks: “I hope Duterte is not going to put me in jail.”
She smiles. But there is unease.