An Italian Catholic priest who was about to travel to a clergy meeting was shot dead Monday in his remote southern Philippine parish, police said.
The Rev. Fausto Tentorio was approaching his car when a gunman shot him several times within the church compound in North Cotabato province's mountainous Arakan township, said Chief Inspector Benjamin Rioflorido.
Tentorio, a native of Santa Maria Hoe town in Italy's Lecco province, was dead on arrival at hospital. He was 59.
Rioflorido said that according to a witness, the gunman ran from the scene after the shooting and fled toward an adjacent town on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice.
Investigators have not yet identified suspects or possible motives, Rioflorido said in a telephone interview. He said Tentorio had been a longtime parish priest in Arakan, spoke the dialect fluently and had good ties with the people there.
The priest had been about to travel to the provincial capital, Kidapawan city, to attend a clergy meeting of his diocese.
Kidapawan Bishop Romulo dela Cruz strongly denounced the killing and called on the police and military to solve the killing quickly.
Tentorio belonged to the Rome-based Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. PIME said he had worked with indigenous people in the south for more than 30 years and was the third PIME missionary to be killed on southern Mindanao Island, the homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. The resource-rich but impoverished region has seen Muslim rebellions for decades.
"We are very sad because we lost already two other priests here in Mindanao," Rev. Julio Mariani, director of PIME's Euntes Mission Center in Zamboanga City, told The Associated Press.
Mariani said Tentorio received unspecified death threats around seven years ago, but had not mentioned new threats when they last met in July.
He said Tentorio's killing could have been related to his work defending the rights of indigenous people and helping them hold on to their ancestral land.
"It was a delicate mission because when you deal with the marginalized and the poor, you are bound to step on the toes of some people and this could have been the source of the problem of why he was killed," Mariani added.
Rioflorido said they did not know of any death threats received by Tentorio.
He said police would interview Tentorio's colleagues and other possible witnesses including teachers at a preschool within the church compound who were attending a flag-raising ceremony when the attack took place.
Italian Ambassador Luca Fornari condemned the killing and expressed shock, sadness and dismay.
"Killing someone who is doing good things is something that we cannot understand," he added.
He said the embassy has asked police to increase security for missionaries.
Italy has warned its nationals, including priests, not to go to Mindanao, but missionaries have disregarded the advisory in order to help people, Fornari said.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario called on police "to immediately bring the perpetrators of this dastardly act to justice" and offered condolences to Tentorio's family and congregation.