KUALA LUMPUR — While Philippine citizens disagree with the Duterte administration’s head-in-the-sand response to Chinese aggression in the disputed South China Sea, a substantial number still support his so-called drug war that has claimed thousands of lives. But there are serious public misgivings about the industrial-scale extrajudicial killings that could yet result in President Rodrigo Duterte being charged by international prosecutors. Last week several hundred protesters marked the third anniversary of a landmark international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines and against aspects of China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea. The same week survey by local polling outfit Social Weather Stations showed 87 percent backing for the proposition that the Philippines “should assert its right to the islands in the West Philippine Sea (the local name for the South China Sea) as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). However President Duterte, who marked three years in office on June 30, has several times referred to an apparent threat by China to go to war should the Philippines assert its claims to the sea based on the court’s ruling, which China refused to recognize.
KNOCK — When Pope Francis lands in Dublin on Saturday morning, he will encounter a land much changed from the one that gave predecessor John Paul II a euphoric welcome nearly four decades ago. “Devotion was at its peak, there were around 450,000 people here in Knock to see the pope,” said Bernard Byrne, 74, sitting inside his souvenir shop next to the parish church in Knock, a village in the west of Ireland. Behind him loomed statues of the Virgin Mary and framed photos of Francis, who will visit the Catholic pilgrimage site on Sunday, emulating John Paul II.
HONG KONG/JAKARTA — Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has criticized the Vatican for being “unfaithful” to its subjects in striking a deal with Beijing on the appointment of Chinese bishops, which he believes would eliminate the very few freedoms enjoyed by unofficially sanctioned “underground” churches in China. Zen’s comments come after reports emerged that Pope Francis has decided to accept the legitimacy of seven Catholic bishops chosen by the Chinese government as part of a rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing after decades of cool relations. Such acquiescence implies that although the pope is the one who appoints the bishops, it was the Chinese government that chose the candidates. “[Beijing] wants the Vatican to [help] get all these birds into the cage,” Zen told media in Hong Kong on Friday, referring to the appointments.
JAKARTA — After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s succession of tirades against the country’s Catholic Church leaders, bishops hardly expected a presidential climb down, even after their entreaty asking the government to ease up on a violent anti-drugs campaign. In less than eight months, more than 7,600 people, mostly drug traffickers and drug users, have been executed extrajudicially, often by a gunshot to the head, their bodies left on the blood-strewn street as a warning. Some have been killed in police operations and some have been murdered by unidentified paramilitary squads. The bloodshed prompted a February pastoral letter signed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, which said, “This traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers.”
YANGON — Numbering around 1 million people living in western Myanmar, along with several hundred thousand refugees and migrants in neighboring countries, there are few peoples in the world as marooned as the Muslim Rohingya. Most are stateless, denied citizenship by Myanmar due to a 1982 law dictated while the country, then known as Burma, was run by the army. But the end of dictatorship in 2011 and the rise to power of an elected government last year — headed by one of the world’s best-known former political prisoners Aung San Suu Kyi — has done little to help the Rohingya. “They have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith,” said Pope Francis in his latest weekly audience Feb. 8.
MANILA — When Pope Francis visited the Philippines in 2015, he was greeted with the adulation you would expect in what is one of the world’s most distinctively and devoutly Catholic countries — but not that way by the person who was elected this week as the nation’s new president. An estimated six million people turned out in the steaming tropical rain to hear the Pope say Mass in Manila’s Rizal Park, with hundreds of thousands more lining the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the papal motorcade and maybe even snare a fleeting blessing from the outgoing Argentinian. However there was one man who was not impressed by the pageantry, or even by the Pope, it seems. Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, the biggest city in the southern Philippines, was caught for hours in Manila’s infamously clogged traffic — the jam made worse by the huge throng in town to see Pope Francis. Duterte, famously abrupt and blunt, let his frustration get the better of him and called Pope Francis “a son of a bitch” — or “son of a whore,” depending on translation — remarks that predictably earned the mayor the scorn of Church leaders in the Philippines, home to around 80 million Catholics.
KNOCK – The old parish church remains, while the newer, bigger church — which was named a basilica in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, during his short visit to Knock in late September of that year — has just reopened after a $10-million renovation. The original basilica building was partly intended to shelter the many pilgrims to Knock (sometimes numbering up to 1.6 million a year) from the west of Ireland’s swirling winds and bracing mists. Inside the old basilica, coat-clad pilgrims squeezed into benches that looked designed for primary-school children, as sermons and hymns echoed and faded inaudibly around the expanses of the five-chapel interior. That has all been remedied, however, as Father Patrick Burke, a priest at Knock, explained to the Register during this writer’s visit in April. “It had been talked about for a long time,” Father Burke said of the refurbishment, the physical part of which began after the final Mass of the 2014 pilgrimage season, which was held on Oct. 12 of last year.
L’AQUILA, Italy – The three bottles of red wine sit corked on the table, exactly where they were that night almost four years ago when a deadly earthquake hit this mountainside town in central Italy. Circling his gaze around to the cracks in the white plaster walls of his house, which he’d moved into just 10 months before the disaster and is still paying for, Lucio Paolucci says that he has no idea when – or even if – he can move back in. “I hope so, I hope, but by now it is four years, and nothing much has changed,” he says. Mr Paolucci’s house, like many other buildings in the hilltop old town of L’Aquila, has a long history, dating back to the 1300’s. The earthquake, which struck around 3.30 am on April 6, 2009, killed 309 people and left 65,000 more homeless. Pointing to the bottles, Mr Paolucci says they are a relic of the days before the disaster. “I keep them there like that as a reminder, a keepsake,” he says.
ROME – On a misty Sunday evening in Rome, Sister Gloria Bongkonoy scuttled back and forth from the Santa Pudenziana church to the small parish office next door. “As you can see, we are busy this weekend,” she grinned, as worshippers filed down the narrow steps from the sloping Via Urbana 20 feet above. The Mass they were gathering for was celebrated not in Italian or Latin or even English, but in Tagalog, the national language of Sister Gloria’s homeland, the Philippines. When asked about hopes that Manila’s Cardinal Luis Tagle – “pronounced Tag-lay,” as she corrected me – would be elected Pope, Sister Gloria merely smiled and said “we are hoping that the will of God will be done in the conclave.”