MANILA — Philippine law enforcement officials were investigating whether a senior priest in the Roman Catholic Church was involved in the smuggling of elephant ivory to feed the country’s passion for religious icons.
The investigation was prompted by an article in National Geographic magazine that quotes Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, a senior church official, as telling a US reporter how to smuggle illegal elephant ivory figurines into the United States.
“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it,’’ he is quoted as saying, to deter inspection.
The Philippine National Bureau of Investigation and the wildlife protection agency are investigating such claims, officials said Wednesday.
The Philippines is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a treaty that regulates trade in plants and animals. Trading ivory has been banned under the treaty since 1990.
Garcia moved to the Philippines after he was accused of molesting an altar boy in Los Angeles in 1986, accusations he denied. He has since become a prominent and respected leader of the church in the Central Philippines.
He could not be reached for comment late Wednesday. Church officials said earlier in the day that he was ill.
Archbishop Jose S. Palma said at a news conference that the church would also investigate, but expressed skepticism about the accusations. He said the church supported the ban on trading ivory, but noted that some of the artifacts predated the 1990 ban and were considered part of the cultural heritage of local churches.
“The account given by National Geographic magazine needs to be assessed as to its veracity, considering that the article smacks of bias against religious practices,’’ the archbishop said in an earlier statement.
Religious icons and statues are popular among Catholics in the Philippines, and those made of pure ivory are among the most treasured. Religious shops openly sell pure ivory icons, and many parishes have an ivory statue.