Duterte
© Lean Daval Jr/Reuters
Rodrigo Duterte recently threatened to have a bishop's head cut off.
Provocative president intensifies attack on the Catholic Church, which opposes his deadly war on drugs.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his country's Catholic bishops are "useless fools" and should be "killed" as the controversial leader stepped up his attack on the church, which has opposed his deadly war on drugs in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

In a speech at the presidential palace on Wednesday, Duterte was quoted in local news reports as saying in a mix of Filipino and English: "These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticise."

In an address to government officials later, Duterte also called the Catholic Church "the most hypocritical institution" and said his God is different from the one Catholics worship.

"I never said I do not believe in God. What I said is your God is stupid, mine has a lot of common sense. That's what I told the bishops. I never said I was an atheist," he said in an apparent reference to an earlier statement when he was quoted as saying God is "stupid" and a "son of a whore".

The Philippines has more than 100 million people, an estimated 90 percent of whom identify as Catholic.

Duterte is known for making off-the-cuff remarks without much consideration for their content.

Earlier this week, he said he used cannabis to stay awake, but later retracted the statement saying he was just joking.

'They are killing us'

In December last year, three Catholic priests were killed, raising the alarm in the Philippines, with the church and opposition leaders condemning the continued "culture of impunity".

"They are killing our flock. They are killing us, the shepherds. They are killing our faith. They are cursing our church," Catholic leaders said in a strongly worded statement earlier this year.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas also urged Duterte to "stop the verbal persecution" against the Catholic Church, "because such attacks can unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests".

Duterte, who is a baptised Catholic, has said the church has no moral authority to criticise him, chastising the institution for the sexual abuse scandals involving priests all over the world. He even cursed Pope Francis during the 2016 presidential campaign but later apologised.

Richard Javad Heydarian, a Manila-based academic and political commentator, said Duterte's latest attack is an escalation of his feud with the church. "This is a clash of two powerful institutions, the presidency and the church. So, in some ways, it's a 21st-century struggle between the church and the state over the country's destiny," he told Al Jazeera.

Deadly drug war opposition

Heyhardian said there is also an "element of state crackdown" aimed at members of the clergy who are aligned with progressive groups critical of the Duterte administration. The Catholic Church in the Philippines has openly criticised the drug war and has extended help to some of the victims and survivors of the extrajudicial killings, earning the ire of the president.

Recently, Duterte threatened to have a bishop's head cut off.

Although he did not specify the clergyman's name, he alleged in the same speech that a certain "Bishop David" was engaged in corrupt practices. Duterte provided no evidence to back his accusation.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan, outside the capital Manila, is one of the most outspoken critics of Duterte's war on drugs. His district has seen one of the highest numbers of extrajudicial killings in the past two years. In response to Duterte's allegation, Bishop David was quoted in news reports as saying his parents "never taught me to steal".

People's lives

In an interview with Al Jazeera last year, Bishop David said it was his moral obligation to oppose the killing of human beings.

"With regards to the issue on drugs, I think that we will never soften on our stand because it is not about politics for us, it is about the lives of people," he said at the time.

Human rights advocates and an opposition senator allege the death toll in Duterte's war on drugs has surpassed 20,000 since he assumed office in 2016.

The government, however, claims the toll is much lower. According to its latest report published in October, a total of 4,999 people have been killed since the launch of the anti-drug campaign in 2016.

Rights groups have denounced the killings as extrajudicial executions and say the crackdown is unfairly directed at the poor rather than the kingpins in the illicit trade.