Palace: Killings of priests meant to discredit Duterte's anti-crime drive

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(L-R) Father Richmond Nilo, Father Mark Ventura, and Father Marcelito Paez

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 13) — Malacañang suspects lawless elements are killing priests to discredit the government's war against criminality.

"In this nationwide drive, lawless elements will seek to block our efforts by sowing division and creating animosity, even exploiting crimes like the killings of priests," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement Wednesday.

This was made in response to the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan's statement that President Rodrigo Duterte's verbal attacks against the Catholic Church "can unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests."

Roque dismissed the clergy's claim, saying it was the President himself who "ordered an intensified campaign against criminality."

He added that the government and the Philippine National Police have launched investigations into the killings of Father Richmond Nilo on June 10, Father Mark Ventura last April 29 and Father Marcelito Paez on December 4 last year.

Nilo was fatally shot by two unidentified men while preparing for a mass in Nueva Ecija. Ventura was shot in the head and chest while celebrating mass in Cagayan. Paez was killed while driving his vehicle in Nueva Ecija.

All gunmen rode a motorcycle to escape the crime scene.

"We join the Catholic bishops and faithful in condemning the murder of Catholic priests," Roque said, calling for unity against the "purveyors of crime" to "advance the peace and security of the nation and the Church."

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) reiterated its call for justice upon the death of Nilo, the third priest killed in recent months. 

"We make our appeal once again to the police authorities to act swiftly in the investigation and to go after the perpetrators of this heinous crime and bring them to justice," the CBCP said.

The police are looking into five persons of interest seen in the CCTV footage of Nilo's killing.     

Police said Nilo received death threats after helping some people involved in land disputes. He also supported victims of rape and abuse in filing cases against suspects and criticized other religious sects, police said, adding these factors will be considered in establishing the motive behind the priest's killing.