PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is now on a state visit to three Middle Eastern Islamic countries—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the State of Qatar—while majority of the Filipino people and the rest of the Catholic world observe the penitential season known as Holy Week. There is nothing wrong about visiting these Arab countries. But he could not have chosen a more inappropriate date.
Indeed, he could not have done worse had he chosen to spend Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Black Saturday and Easter Sunday with his natural or official family sunning themselves on a sandy shore somewhere off the South China Sea or the Pacific, while most Filipino Catholics meditate on the suffering, death and resurrection of the crucified and risen Christ whom they profess to be the center of their faith.
For reasons far beyond me, the point seems completely lost on PDU30. I cannot imagine any of his hosts—Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Bahrain King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, or Qatari Emir Tanim bin Hamad al Thani—making a pilgrimage to a non-Islamic place during Ramadan while the Muslim world is doing its month-long religious fast. No serious Filipino Catholic therefore can possibly understand the outrageous timing of this Arab junket.
Not the Middle East, please
Some of my friends have suggested that DU30 has decided to spend the Holy Week in a place where the Holy Week is not formally observed, precisely because he does not believe in it. This is excessively cynical, and I refuse to accept it. I am aware of DU30’s casual attacks on the Catholic Church, the Pope, bishops and priests, but whether he means what he says or says things purely for political or mass media effect, the Filipino people, majority of whom are Catholic, have a right to demand that he respect their cultural sensibilities and their faith.
Supping with pagan monarchs during this holiest of Christian seasons, in places where that season is not recognized by the people and their religious leaders, is nothing less than an act of disrespect. DU30 may declare himself a non-believer or pagan who has convinced himself that the Catholic Church would disappear, as he recently said, “in 30 years,” but for as long as he is the President of Filipinos who are mostly Catholic, he cannot be publicly and officially associated with any act hostile to their faith.
The Philippines is one of the last truly Catholic Christian countries, after the tragic dechristianization of the Western world. It would be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the islands in the next four years. This is an irreplaceable treasure to many, if not most, Filipinos. As their President, DU30 has a duty to safeguard that wealth, whatever his religious belief or non-belief. Either he is part of the culture or he is not; he cannot lead the nation if he is not.
What Saudi owes our OFWs
Saudi Arabia employs the most number of Overseas Filipino Workers in the Middle East. While accompanying then-Vice President Jejomar C. Binay as presidential adviser on OFW concerns on some of his trips to the Middle East, I heard some of the King’s ministers say they would take it as an unfriendly act if the Philippine government prevented Filipinos from working in Saudi households. But the Saudi government has done nothing to allow Filipino Catholics working in the kingdom to exercise their right of religious worship. Only in Doha has Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, father of the current Emir, provided the Filipinos and Catholics from other countries a church where they could freely worship.
In spite of DU30’s mistake in spending Holy Week in these three Islamic countries, he could still make amends by asking King Salman in Riyadh to make it possible for Filipino Catholics to practice their faith in their places of work. This could help mitigate his unnecessary offense to Filipino Catholics. He could then come home and call on Filipino Catholics to help him unify the nation behind his government. We could then move as one regardless of our religious differences to confront the monumental problems that have piled up. Many of these problems uniquely belong to the President, but if we stand as one, we could lend him a helping hand wherever he needs it.
The brutal war on drugs has gone south; threats are mounting to drag DU30 to the International Criminal Court at the Hague; he is facing an impeachment complaint in the House of Representatives that could still prove treacherous; two of his closest Congress allies are quarrelling, together with, and on account of, their mistresses; some of his lackeys want to impeach the Ombudsman and the Vice President to give way to various political motives; his Cabinet is rent by bitter and insidious feuds about turf, contracts, loot, and illicit privilege; his personal interventions have resulted in the firing and shaming of a few officials, unfortunately before all the parties could be thoroughly investigated.
The wrong people have taken the rap, while the apparently guilty ones have remained more deeply entrenched. These include former National Irrigation Administrator Peter Lavina, former Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno, and former Cabinet Undersecretary Maia Chiara Halmen Valdez, all of whom may have been fed to the lions without a fair process. I do not know any of these individuals, but based on my own inquiry, I have to ask whether they got a fair deal.
Lavina, for one, was accused of trying to benefit from a P5 billion irrigation project that ballooned into P14 billion long before he was appointed to his post. He appeared to be less sinning than sinned against. In fact, the persistent scuttlebutt is that he was trying to stop the alleged corruption, but was outsmarted by better positioned parties. Someone snitched on him, before he could put together the necessary paperwork on his adversaries.
In the case of Sueno, it appears that a member of his family got herself involved in some minor official transactions. These raised a question of propriety, but not enough to constitute corruption. What broke the camel’s back, sources close to the story said, was the P18.5 billion appropriation for “Assistance to Disadvantaged Municipalities” which Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. would like to see transferred from the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) to his communist-oriented quasi-political party, “Kilusang Pagbabago” (KP), for which no official funds are provided in the General Appropriations Act. Of this amount, the Department of Budget and Management has released P3.5 billion for 547 municipalities. But Sueno reportedly bucked the move, and got cooked for it.
With respect to Halmen, whom DU30 fired after she collided with National Food Administrator Jason Aquino on the question of extending the rice importation deadlines, her gravest offense, the same sources said, is that she is not only a native of Maribojoc, Bohol, where Evasco comes from, but above all the Cabinet Secretary’s personal protege. The fact that Evasco has become more powerful than any Cabinet member has made it difficult for other members of the DU30 government to be objective about him on many issues. But it seems wrong to fault a subordinate official just because she is a subordinate and for no other reason.
It is to be regretted that grave allegations of corruption now seem to confront the very government that has vowed to expose and punish the unpunished corruption of others; that supposedly incorruptible communist appointees, who were supposed to be models of honesty, dedication and efficiency, are now being linked to questionable activities involving large sums of money and fat contracts. This is truly tragic, but it is a reality DU30 and the nation must now face.
The best way for us to face it is by calling upon our strongest moral reserves as a people with a strong political resolve and an authentic Christian faith. And this we do not fritter away by doing the silliest things for the silliest reasons in the most important of all seasons in our Christian life.