ROME – While conveying compassion and solidarity with his citizens, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to a Catholic cathedral where Sunday’s bomb attack took place is also another sign of his odd and, at times, volatile relationship with the Catholic Church.
Visiting Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo on Monday, Duterte vowed to “crush” the “godless” criminals who carried out the attack, which took place Sunday morning as Mass-goers were gathered inside the cathedral for worship, leaving 20 dead and 81 wounded.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, with most observers assuming the reference was to the local Islamic terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf. Police have since indicated that the brother of a slain Abu Sayyaf leader is among the suspects in the crime.
During his visit to the cathedral, Duterte met with top military, defense and police officials and attended a wake for victims.
In a previous statement, he said he would pursue “to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy.”
Though his reaction was swift and his language forceful, the scene was a paradox given Duterte’s tumultuous relationship with the Catholic Church and his often hostile language toward the country’s priests and bishops.
Duterte has been at odds with the Catholic Church in the Philippines since his election in 2016, with many ecclesial leaders issuing vocal condemnations of his bid to introduce the death penalty and his crackdown on drugs. Thousands of people have been killed in extrajudicial executions related to the drug trade.
Many have said Duterte’s frequent remarks about killing drug dealers led to an “open season” for security forces to murder with impunity.
In terms of the Church itself, Duterte has often issued burning critiques and insults, calling God “stupid” and indicating that people shouldn’t go to Mass.
On Dec. 29, 2018, he vowed that his attacks against the Church would continue until it “corrects itself,” mostly on the issue of clerical sexual abuse. If the Church fails to clean up its act, he said “I will remain its opponent … and I will continue to attack it.”
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