MANILA, Philippines – A masked man wearing a cap knocked at the office of Father Flavie Villanueva, a priest most outspoken against drug war killings, in Tayuman, Manila. Nobody opened the door for him.
The man – who was carrying a backpack and wearing a shirt and shorts – then walked back and forth in front of Villanueva's office building. He did this for around 17 minutes. At one point, the man moved a few steps away from the building to scale the building with his eyes.
Later on, the man was seen approaching a white van a few steps away from Villanueva's office. The man stopped by the van. Moments later, the van left and the masked man walked away.
It was February 22, and it was caught on CCTV video. Villanueva showed reporters CCTV footage of the masked man as he and two other priests, in a press conference on Monday, March 11, exposed recent death threats against them.
Villanueva said the masked man's visit happened a week after he received a death threat through a text message. The priest got the threatening message at around 2:30 am on Valentine's Day, February 14, and he said it was full of "putang ina" (son of a bitch).
The priest said he later consulted an intelligence expert who works with the police. The intelligence expert told Villanueva, "Father, hindi ka papatayin niyan. Gusto kang interbyuhin (Father, that man was not planning to kill you. He wanted to interview you)." Later in the press conference, Villanueva said, "Actually word niya, 'dudukutin' (Actually, his word was 'to abduct')."
'This is not the first time'
Villanueva was asked in the press conference how sure he is that the masked man is linked to the white van, and if the threatening text messages, the earlier "visitations," and the visit of the masked man "are all related to really threaten you, and there's the intention to kill you."
"Well, I hope they're not related, and I hope it's not true," the priest answered. "But from an expert's point of view, as I consulted some intelligence, they say that this is part of a modus that when a team would go and come and try to abduct, they don't go in together. They would always be in separate teams, there would always be that collapsed imagery that one is not part of the other."
He added that "this is not the first time."
He recalled another time when two people, at least one of them wearing a mask, asked the security guard of his office building if Villanueva still lives in Room 318. When the guard said the priest was not there, the unidentified man asked, "Nauwi pa ba siya sa bahay nila sa Makati (Does he still go home to their house in Makati)?"
"There is apparently a pattern in visitations in my case," he said.
When asked if he plans to report these threats to the police, Villanueva said, "I suppose they know this already so there's no need for us to go there."
Rejecting police protection
Villanueva is one of at least 5 Catholic priests who have received death threats since February, as President Rodrigo Duterte steps up his attacks against the Catholic Church. Duterte detests the Catholic Church for criticizing his bloody anti-drug campaign, which has killed thousands.
Villanueva himself is a former drug user, and he believes killing will not solve the drug problem. Since 2015, or before Duterte took office, Villanueva has run the Saint Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center in Tayuman to feed, groom, and care for the homeless. (READ: From drug addiction to priesthood)
The threats to his life have led Villanueva to ask: "Why? Am I doing something evil? Am I an evil person?"
"But then again at the end of the day, if helping these widows and orphans seems to be a threat to others because it empowers them, because it allows them to speak the truth, then maybe someone is insecure about what I'm doing and would like to stop what I'm doing," Villanueva said.
The priests who have received death threats – Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, and Fathers Villanueva, Robert Reyes, and Albert Alejo – have all criticized Duterte's anti-drug campaign.
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Duterte had said on December 5, 2018, that bishops should be "killed" for supposedly doing nothing but criticize his administration.
But on February 25 this year, after Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle alerted him about death threats against priests, Duterte backtracked. He claimed he made his December 2018 tirade only because a priest reportedly prayed for his death.
Still, Duterte's critics said his words embolden would-be killers. (READ: Duterte said kill the bishops – and his word became flesh)
Many of the priests with death threats, in fact, remain wary of police assistance.
"Ako po hindi ko po tatanggapin. Obvious na siguro ang dahilan kung bakit (I will not accept it. I think the reason is obvious)," Reyes said, adding that David himself did not accept police protection.
"I think we're better off asking our parishioners, our brother priests, the religious communities, to protect us," Reyes said.
Alejo, a Jesuit priest, said the police have not offered him protection so far. "Kung aalukin ako, medyo kakabahan ho ako sa ngayon." (If they offer it to me, I would become nervous.) – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.