Last week, the government said Holy Week activities would be banned, especially attendance in masses and processions as a means of stopping the skyrocketing new cases of COVID-19 in the country, with about half the cases recorded in Metro Manila.

This drew an instant response from the Church, which asked why gyms and spas were allowed to resume partial operations, while church worship service was not.

An organization of Protestant churches sided with the Catholic Church’s stand that the priorities of the Duterte administration were badly misplaced.

Some churches  ignored the newly-imposed protocols, as what happened in Bukidnon on March 28, Palm Sunday.

The largest Catholic church in the province still held mass and ignored social distancing, although almost all attendees were wearing masks and face shields.

President Duterte has an acrimonious relationship with the church, having cursed the Pope, bishops, and even the God worshipped by all Christians in several instances.

He has called the Christian God “stupid,” and the Pope a “son of a bitch” for causing a major traffic congestion when he visited the Philippines.

He also said that he hates the Catholic Church because he was abused by a priest when he was a student at an exclusive Catholic school for boys.

Duterte’s spokesmen have tried to tone down his statements by saying that the President doesn’t always mean what he says.

Duterte is said to be a follower of Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, leader of a Davao-based cult who has  legal problems in the US for alleged human trafficking and money laundering. Quiboloy has lent the President his private plane on several occasions and was one of the biggest donors to his presidential campaign.

This Lenten season, the President has avoided any attack on the church.

The administration also altered its strict rules by allowing churches to open, with a limit on the number of persons allowed inside.

Church officials agreed but then the government called for the strictest lockdown possible, beginning Monday, March 29 until April 4.

The Church accepted the lockdown, with Bishop Roberto Gaa saying in a pastoral letter: “There is a strong need, even major imperative for our parish churches to go into lockdown. This is for us to help arrest the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.”

No masses would be held until April 4, Easter Sunday.

Catholics comprise an estimated 80 to 85 percent of the total Philippine population, estimated at 110 million. For them, the two most important seasons are Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and Easter, which recalls his death and resurrection. The three days leading to Easter Sunday – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Black Saturday – are devoted to fasting and prayer for devout Catholics.

It has often been stated that less-than-devout Catholics only attend mass on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.

As such, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco said, “Closing our places of worship at the highest point of our liturgical year is heartbreaking.”

The largest Catholic churches have been resorting to televised and online masses for the faithful as an alternative to their physical presence inside churches, chapels, and cathedrals.

The coronavirus pandemic has not spared senior Church leaders, with Father Anton Pascual of the Archdiocese of Manila testing positive for COVID-19 last week.

The archdiocese announced a lockdown for the period March 20 to 28 with Fr. Pascual being taken to Cardinal Santos Medical Center for treatment.

The cancellation of Easter activities this year is a repeat of last year, when the government also banned church activities during the first lockdown.