The Palace warned the Catholic Church on Tuesday that churches would be closed in the exercise of the state’s police powers if they insisted on holding services despite rising coronavirus cases in Metro Manila and its adjacent provinces.
Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo had criticized the ban on religious gatherings amid the firmer COVID-19 restrictions placed on the so-called National Capital Region-plus “bubble,” saying it was a violation of religious freedom.
But Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque told a news briefing: "We ask Bishop Pabillo not to encourage disregard of IATF rules. This is for the good of everyone anyway.”
Then Roque warned, if churches pushed through with their opening, "in the exercise of police powers, we can order the churches closed."
“We hope it will not come to that Bishop Pabillo. We cannot achieve any objective if you will defy, and you will force the state to close the doors of the church,” he added.
In a statement, Pabillo said the state – meaning, the government – did not consult the church before deciding on the matter amid the upcoming Holy Week, which starts with Palm Sunday on March 28.
“This is where they are wrong and we should not follow that kind of leadership that decides on things without consultations, and it somehow breaks the separation of the church and state. They are the ones doing the separating now,” Pabillo said.
He added the Archdiocese of Manila would hold religious worship at 10 percent of a church's capacity starting Wednesday, March 24.
“Let the worshipers be spread apart within our churches, using the health protocols that we have been so consistently implementing,” he said in a separate statement.
Pabillo said religious activities outside of churches such as the “senakulo,” “pabasa,” processions, motorcades, and visita iglesia (church visits) would not be held.
Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal — designated as the "National Capital Region Plus" — were placed under a stricter community quarantine from March 22 to April 4.
At the same time, under the stricter GCQ, weddings, baptisms, and funerals may be held but limited to only 10 people.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines urged the faithful to participate in the celebration of the first Mass in the country next month.
In a Pastoral Letter issued on Tuesday, CBCP president Archbishop Romulo Valles encouraged Catholics to join the event on April 4, Easter Sunday.
“We therefore enjoin all our faithful to actively participate in our simultaneous commemoration of the First Mass celebrated in our country on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. Let it also be the occasion for the
opening of a jubilee door in every cathedral in the whole country, as well as in select Churches during the rest of Easter,” Valles added.
At the same time, he urged bishops to celebrate the sacrament of baptism on the second week of April.
“As regards the commemoration of the First Baptism, aside from the national celebration on April 14, 2021 in Cebu, we enjoin all the active bishops of the Philippines to also have their own commemorations by celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism, either on April 14 or on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021,” the CBCP head said.
Pabillo also urged devotees to attend Mass but within the 10 percent limit.
He said: “We encourage devotees who want to attend Mass but within the limits we will set. We will be the ones who will set the limit on the number of attendees within a church, not them.”
The bishop stressed that religious services were essential services.
Valles also expressed hope that 2021 will be a year of looking back in history for the faithful to better understand who they are in the present "as communities of disciples."
"(It is also) and opportunity also to look forward in the next 500 years with the same missionary zeal that made it possible for us to receive the Christian faith,” he added.
The 1521 Easter Sunday mass in the country took place in Limasawa, Southern Leyte.
Earlier, Pope Francis acknowledged Filipinos for sharing their faith to the world, during the Mass which he headed to celebrate the occasion.
On Monday, the Philippines reported a record daily rise of 8,019 COVID-19 infections, as authorities implemented tighter curbs in the congested capital region and hospital capacity neared critical levels in some areas.
The new wave of cases in the Philippines, which has the second highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia, is also threatening hopes of a strong economic rebound after a record contraction last year and the loss of millions of jobs.
Tighter measures could reduce the number of new cases by at least 25 percent, Roque told a news conference on Monday.
The Philippines, which launched its vaccination drive later than neighbors at the start of this month, has received 1.125 million donated doses of the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines.
The government plans to inoculate 70 million adults as it seeks to achieve herd immunity.