MANILA (2nd UPDATE)—Catholic leaders were told to leave the Balangiga Plaza minutes before President Rodrigo Duterte's arrival for the ceremonial turnover of three war-trophy bells in Eastern Samar, a priest alleged on Saturday.
The President arrived shortly before 5 p.m. and rang one of the historic bells for the first time since the artifacts arrived in Balangiga town.
Fr. Edmel Raagas alleged that some priests, Borongan Bishop Crispin Barrete Varquez and Apostolic Nuncio Gabriele Giordano Caccia were told to leave by the Presidential Management Staff.
But Christopher "Bong" Go, former special assistant to the president, denied the allegation, saying that Duterte shook hands with priests, Varquez and Caccia before he took to the stage for the ceremony.
"We were told the President only wants to see Archbishop (Romulo) Valles in the turnover rites," Raagas told ABS-CBN News.
"When the Nuncio was informed by another bishop to leave, the Nuncio said it would be improper and disrespectful."
Raagas said he was told to move to an area where they were out of the President's sight.
"Later, two priests including myself were instructed by PMS to transfer to the seats at the back 'kasi alam niyo naman may issues ang presidente sa inyo'," Raagas said.
"We refused because as shepherds we carry in our hearts the joys and pains of the flock that we represent in that program who waited 117 years for the return of those bells owned by the Church."
Raagas added that chairs were placed in front of the priests to block them from Duterte's view.
"That was OK for us: we were so humble before the gift of the bells to be received," he said.
Duterte, who has routinely attacked the Church and its teachings, skipped the Catholic mass after the ceremonial turnover.
Malacañang had formed a team to hold a dialogue with the Catholic Church, but it remains unclear what progress was achieved by the talks.
—With reports from Raphael Bosano and Joyce Balancio, ABS-CBN News