As drug war's toll grows in the Philippines, so does church's pushback

The crackdown on drugs is a hallmark of President Rodrigo Duterte's administration. But as the death tolls mounts, many Filipinos are speaking out – including the Catholic Church, one of the country's most powerful institutions.

Erik De Castro/ Reuters
A banner hangs outside a church in the town of Pateros , Metro Manila, Philippines on March 14, 2017.

In a dimly lit events room in a church compound in Manila's endless suburbs, a few dozen parishioners have gathered on a bleak Tuesday afternoon. The men and women sitting in rows of plastic chairs listen to a lecture in Tagalog; some come forward to share their experiences.

The Rev. George Alfonso watches intently. The parish priest is supervising the event, a group therapy session for drug users trying to come clean – and ensure their survival.

Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016, pledging to rid the country of drugs in order to reduce crime, addiction comes with more than the usual risks. The ensuing crackdown has claimed the lives of thousands of alleged drug users and sellers. Filipino police say they have killed more than 3,900 “drug personalities” in official operations since Mr. Duterte took office, while activists say the actual death toll could be as high as 13,000 – and that most victims are small-time dealers and addicts, many of them killed by vigilantes.

In Duterte’s inaugural State of the Nation address, he estimated there were 3.7 million “drug addicts” in the Philippines, a country of 100 million. “I have to slaughter these idiots who are destroying my country,” he said. The previous chairman of the Official Dangerous Drug Boards had put the number of drug users at 1.8 million – a discrepancy for which Duterte fired him in May.

Human rights groups have decried the campaign’s violence. But month after month, polls showed high support at home for Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, with many Filipinos frustrated by past failures to tackle the problem. Critics have been berated, and one of the most vocal opponents, Sen. Leila de Lima, has been detained on drug-trafficking charges. But public opinion appears to be on the cusp of a shift – and one of the country’s most powerful institutions, the Roman Catholic Church, is also stepping up its criticism, saying the crackdown has gone too far.

“When the president declared war against drugs, we saw the magnitude of the problem,” says Father Alfonso. “Now other church people are opening their eyes and trying to do something.”

Quiet pushback

In a society where 81 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, the church traditionally holds significant sway, and it is not known to be a passive bystander in Philippines politics. In the 1970s and '80s, it was a key player in the opposition movement that led to the downfall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. As the press was muzzled and political repression increased, the clergy helped mobilize the population against Marcos’s rule – a legacy many are proud of today.

In many parishes, opposition to the anti-drug war began quietly, one by one. The Baclaran Church in central Manila, for example, has sheltered witnesses of police violence since the beginning of the year. It has also exhibited images of police victims, in protest of the alleged extrajudicial killings.

Activists opposing the carnage would engage with clergymen at the lower rung, going from parish door to parish door in search of cooperation.

“We cannot see the whole Catholic church as one. We have to talk to every church, each diocese, archdiocese. The local parishes, they’re easy to talk to, and they allow us to use their churches as a venue," says Benjamin Cordero, an activist for the “Stop the Killing” movement.

And as the war on drugs raged in the slums, the church’s base began to tackle its consequences.

“If you go to the really poor urban communities around Metro Manila where a lot of these killings are happening, you will find it’s the local dioceses that are taking action. They are reaching out to the poorest of the poor, they are reaching out to their flock,” says Carlos Conde, the Philippines researcher for the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

Parishes like Alfonso’s Santa Quiteria church in Caloocan began to run rehabilitation programs together with the local government and the police, seeking to address the country's drug problem at its roots.

“We are not the owner of our life; it is God-given to us. We don’t have any right to kill a person; instead we should understand the person and [have] the means to correct his mistakes,” says the priest.

“We are offering some kind of alternative, and this is really increasing in every diocese.”

Shift in approval?

Since the start of the anti-drug campaign, critics from the European Parliament to former President Barack Obama have received verbal attacks from Duterte. The church is not immune. The president, who has said he himself was abused by a priest as a teenager, has criticized the church's alleged sense of “moral ascendency,” drawing attention to the child-abuse scandals that have tainted its reputation here and around the world.

“He knows that this is the Achilles heel of the church, and he used it against them. From the moment he stepped into the office, Duterte started firing at the church, putting it on the defensive. And it worked,” says Mr. Conde.

But as the public mood begins to shift, much of the clergy has found a louder voice.

In August, the police allegedly shot 17 year-old Kian delos Santos in an execution-style killing in the Manila district of Caloocan. Police claimed that Kian was armed and resisted arrest. Video at the scene and witness accounts, however, suggested that he was shot in the head, and that evidence of ‘resisting’ was planted near his body. The teenager’s murder sparked outcry that previous accusations of murder had failed to ignite, with protests and a funeral march attended by thousands.

Soon after Kian's death, Bishop Pablo David sheltered several witnesses of his murder, including one minor, on the grounds of San Roque Cathedral in Caloocan. When the police came to pick up the young man on Sept. 9, the bishop refused to hand him over; his father, who had arrived with police, also wound up taking shelter inside.

That opposition echoes wider public skepticism. While Duterte had previously been able to count on massive popular support for his tough stance on drugs, his net satisfaction rating fell in September to 48, compared to 66 in June, according to Philippine pollster Social Weather Stations.

The slump shows Duterte is losing the support of the country's poor, who had initially backed his crackdown, says the Commission on Human Rights, a government body that has consistently criticized the president for his anti-narcotics campaign. The lower house of Congress voted last month to slash the Commission’s budget to 1,000 pesos (about $20), although it reversed the decision after a week. 

“Filipinos in lower socio-economic classes tend to suffer more – and yet no one has been held accountable for any of these killings,” the commission said in a statement.

Protest bells

For months, the influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had shied away from strong criticism, bar a warning in February that Duterte's war on drugs was creating a “reign of terror in many places of the poor.” The letter also condemned public acceptance of the killings, saying “An even greater cause of concern is the indifference of many to this kind of wrong.”

But its willingness to speak up reached a new level in mid-September, when the CBCP decreed that church bells across the country be rung at 8 p.m. for the next 40 days in protest of the killings.

“For the sake of the children and the poor, stop their systematic murders and spreading reign of terror,” the conference’s president, Socrates Villegas, wrote in a statement last month.

He became even explicit in a homily delivered a week later, marking the anniversary of martial law under Marcos. “We are losing our national soul to the Father of Lies and Prince of Darkness,” Archbishop Villegas preached, using traditional names for the devil. “They are killing the poor and poisoning our consciences.”

On Oct. 12, the president pulled the national police out of the war on drugs, saying the change should satisfy “bleeding hearts and media.” The decision leaves the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) – which makes up only 1 percent of the police force – to conduct all official operations.

Despite the climb-down, some worry that the church is once again headed toward a prolonged struggle with a head of state. Under Marcos, thousands of people were arrested, tortured, or killed.

"I am afraid that what we experienced during Marcos may come again. At that time, the church people were really on a collision course with Marcos, and now that may repeat itself," says Alfonso.

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