Lingayen clergy call for an end to Duterte's 'verbal persecution' of Church

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 12) — President Rodrigo Duterte's verbal attacks against the Catholic Church must stop, the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan said Tuesday as it condemned the killing of a priest in Nueva Ecija.

"Let us implore the grace of God to touch the heart of the President of the Philippines to stop the verbal persecution of the Catholic Church because such attacks can unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests," Archbishop Socrates Villegas and other members of the clergy said in a statement. 

"They are killing our flock. They are killing us the shepherds. They are killing our faith," the statement added.

Duterte had repeatedly lashed out at the Catholic Church as some of its leaders' criticized his controversial statements and policies, including the bloody war on drugs.

The archdiocese declared a "Day of Reparation" for June 18, nine days after Father Richmond Nilo was shot to death while preparing for a mass in Nueva Ecija.

Those who will lead the mass will wear violet as a symbol of penitence, while priests and the faithful will engage in fasting and abstinence, according to the statement.

"All the parish church bells should ring for fifteen minutes at six o' clock in the evening on June 18th to commemorate the time when Father Richmond Nilo was killed," the statement added.

Nilo is the third Catholic priest killed by gunmen in the past six months, following that of Father Mark Ventura last April 29 and Father Marcelito Paez on December 4 last year.

Stressing that killing is a sin, Church leaders issued strong words against the government.

"Are you still saying our people feel safer now? Are you still saying this is the best government we ever had? Is this the change you want?" the archdiocese's statement read. "Today, the murderers are commended and the king is undisturbed."

Two persons of interest

According to the police, Nilo was about to celebrate mass at 6 p.m. when two unidentified gunmen shot him through the window of the Nuestra Señora dela Nieve Chapel in Barangay Mayamot, Zaragoza on Sunday.

Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Oscar Albayalde said investigators saw at least two persons of interest in a CCTV footage of the incident.

If they are not found in two days, Albayalde said the artist's sketch of the persons of interest will be released to the public.

Central Luzon Police Director Chief Supt. Amador Corpus said Nilo received death threats after helping some people with problems on land disputes.

CNN Philippines' Ina Andolong, Janine Peralta, and Eimor Santos contributed to this report.