The Philippines is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, with about 90 percent of the population identifying as Catholics.
But that hasn’t stopped President Rodrigo Duterte from repeatedly taking aim at the Catholic Church. On Wednesday, news reports quoted Duterte — who is known for his incendiary remarks — as saying: “These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticize.”
The Catholic Church has emerged as a vocal critic of Duterte’s war on drugs, which has resulted in thousands of deaths since 2016. And in the past year, three Catholic priests have been killed in the Philippines.
Duterte has previously used a crude term to describe Pope Francis, and he angered Catholics in the Philippines this summer when he called God “stupid” in a televised address. He also pushed back on the concept of “original sin,” saying: “What kind of religion is that? I can’t accept it.”
Earlier this year, after a Catholic priest was killed, Catholic leaders in the Philippines released a statement urging Duterte “to stop the verbal persecution of the Catholic Church because such attacks can wittingly embolden more crimes against priests.”
On Thursday, his office excused his comments about killing bishops as “hyperbole.”
“We should be getting used to this president. He makes certain statements for dramatic effect,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo later told reporters, according to the Philippine news site Rappler. “The president, just like any ordinary human being, is upset when the good things that he does for this country are not even appreciated by people who are supposed to support it, like the church.”
But many see the president’s comments as regularly crossing the line from jokey to offensive. In August, he said that “as long as there are many beautiful women, there will be more rape cases.”
This week, Duterte also raised eyebrows when he said he smoked marijuana to stay awake during a recent regional summit because of a grueling schedule. That prompted calls from an opposition figure that the president should be drug-tested. Duterte later said he was only joking about his drug use — a sensitive topic in a country where so many have been killed in Duterte’s war on drugs.
“Of course it was a joke, but nobody can stop me from just doing my style,” Bloomberg News quoted Duterte as saying later. “Sometimes you say I’m a misogynist when I joke, but that’s my style. It’s too late to change.
“If I want to joke, I will joke,” he said, “and if you believe me, then you’re a fool.”