Pow­er­ful Philip­pines Church di­vided, sub­dued

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Clare Bald­win and Manolo Ser­a­pio Jr ‘Church Will Lose’ ‘Life is Cheap’

Catholic priests from the Philip­pines Church, an in­sti­tu­tion that helped oust two of the coun­try’s lead­ers in the past, say they are afraid and un­sure how to speak out against the war on drugs un­leashed by new Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte. In in­ter­views with Reuters, more than a dozen cler­gy­men in Asia’s big­gest Catholic na­tion said they were un­cer­tain how to take a stand against the thou­sands of killings in a war that has such over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar sup­port. Chal­leng­ing the pres­i­dent’s cam­paign could be fraught with dan­ger, some said.

Duterte, who had a 76 per­cent sat­is­fac­tion rat­ing in a sur­vey re­leased last week, has quashed op­po­si­tion to his war on drugs and blasted crit­ics in curse-laden lan­guage. More than 3,600 peo­ple, mostly small-time drug users and deal­ers, have died at the hands of po­lice and suspected vig­i­lantes since he took power on June 30.

In an­other poll con­ducted by the same agency, the So­cial Weather Sta­tions, 84 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they were sat­is­fied or some­what sat­is­fied with the war on the drugs, al­though a ma­jor­ity said they had qualms about the killings. Op­pos­ing the drug war “in some lo­ca­tions be­comes a dan­ger­ous job”, said Fa­ther Lu­ciano Fel­loni, a priest in a north­ern district of the cap­i­tal, Manila. At least 30 peo­ple, in­clud­ing a child and a preg­nant woman, have been killed in his ‘barangay’, or neigh­bor­hood, where he is set­ting up com­mu­nity-based re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion for drug users. “There is a lot of fear be­cause the way peo­ple have been killed is vig­i­lante-style so any­one could be­come a tar­get ... There is no way of pro­tect­ing your­self.”

An­other priest, who like sev­eral oth­ers asked for anonymity be­cause of pos­si­ble reprisals, said it was risky to ques­tion the killings openly. Dozens of drug ad­dicts and push­ers are be­ing killed ev­ery day, but any­one who crit­i­cizes Duterte’s cam­paign could suf­fer a sim­i­lar fate, he said. Pres­i­den­tial spokesman Ernesto Abella said the Church was free to make state­ments, and there was no cause “to even im­ply” that any­one in the clergy would be tar­geted.

How­ever, Abella added: “The Church needs to con­sider that re­cent sur­veys show the peo­ple trust and ap­pre­ci­ate the pres­i­dent’s ef­forts and it would do well to take heed and not pre­sume that the peo­ple share their be­lief sys­tem.”“We ex­pect them to be rea­son­able and con­sid­ered.” Duterte said on Monday he would not stop the cam­paign. “I’m re­ally ap­palled by so many groups and in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing priests and bish­ops, com­plain­ing about the num­ber of per­sons killed in the op­er­a­tion against drugs,” he said in a speech in the south­ern city of Zam­boanga. “If I stop, the next gen­er­a­tion would be lost.”

Some priests have sup­ported Duterte’s war on drugs. “Are the means un­nec­es­sar­ily il­le­git­i­mate?” said Fa­ther Joel Tab­ora, a Je­suit priest in Davao, where Duterte was mayor for 22 years, and where about 1,400 peo­ple were killed from 1998 un­til the end of last year in a sim­i­lar anti-crime and anti-drug cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to ac­tivists. “Peo­ple are dy­ing, yes, but on the other hand, mil­lions of peo­ple are be­ing helped,” said Tab­ora.

Three decades ago, the Church in the Philip­pines cham­pi­oned a ‘Peo­ple Power’ rev­o­lu­tion that re­ver­ber­ated around the world and ousted dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand Mar­cos. It also par­tic­i­pated in a pop­u­lar move­ment in 2001 that led to the im­peach­ment and re­moval of an­other pres­i­dent, Joseph Estrada. For the Vatican, the Philip­pines is a key east­ern hub: It has the third-largest pop­u­la­tion of Catholics glob­ally and ac­counts for more than half of Asia’s roughly 148 mil­lion Catholics.

Nearly 80 per­cent of the 100 mil­lion peo­ple in the Philip­pines are Catholic and, un­like in many other coun­tries where the faith was once strong, the vast ma­jor­ity still prac­tice with en­thu­si­asm. Duterte, who is not a reg­u­lar church­goer him­self and says he was sex­u­ally abused by a priest as a boy, has pub­licly ques­tioned the Church’s rel­e­vance and he dubbed May’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion a ref­er­en­dum be­tween him and the Church.

His vic­tory by a sub­stan­tial mar­gin in­di­cates that de­spite its ap­peal, the po­lit­i­cal clout of the Church is wan­ing, some priests say. In­deed, many church­go­ers who spoke to Reuters said they sup­ported the war on drugs. At the San Felipe Neri Parish Church in Manila on a re­cent Sun­day, Fa­ther Fran­cis Lu­cas said in a ser­mon that the Philip­pines was go­ing through a “mo­ral cri­sis”. “Why are all of th­ese killings hap­pen­ing?” he asked, pac­ing in front of hun­dreds of peo­ple packed into wooden pews. “You have to love and care for one an­other.”

Lu­cas is one of the few priests to op­pose the killings in his ser­mons. But he later told Reuters it was un­fair to ex­pect the Church to in­flu­ence the course of the war on drugs be­cause it no longer had the sec­u­lar power it once en­joyed. “How come ev­ery­body wants the Church to act when oth­ers don’t?” Lu­cas said. “Yes, we have in­flu­ence but times have also changed.” In the car park out­side the church, where peo­ple had spilled out and were lis­ten­ing on loud­speak­ers, his ser­mon did not go down well.

“The Church has to back off,” said Jenny Calma, a 34year-old mother of two. “We voted for our pres­i­dent be­cause he promised to stop drugs,” Calma said as her chil­dren played be­tween parked cars. “The Church will lose” if it takes on Duterte over the killings, she added. “The feel­ing, the at­mos­phere in the com­mu­nity - some­times the Church understands, some­times it doesn’t.”

Nev­er­the­less, some in the clergy are pro­vid­ing shel­ter to in­di­vid­u­als try­ing to flee the cam­paign. “There are cases where asy­lum is be­ing sought and given, which are not brought to the at­ten­tion of me­dia ... es­pe­cially dur­ing th­ese times when life is cheap and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion is a way of liv­ing, and ex­tra-ju­di­cial killing is a mat­ter of course,” re­tired Arch­bishop Os­car Cruz told Reuters. He was also head of the coun­try’s apex Catholic body, the Catholic Bish­ops Con­fer­ence of the Philip­pines (CBCP).

Cruz said de­tails of the priests in­volved, their lo­ca­tions and who they were pro­tect­ing were re­stricted be­cause of the dan­gers in­volved. Reuters spoke with one priest who tem­po­rar­ily hid some­one fear­ing for his life, but the priest de­clined to be named be­cause of con­cerns about his safety. He said that if any de­tails were re­vealed he would be­come a tar­get. At the Vatican, a se­nior of­fi­cial said the Holy See’s Sec­re­tariat of State was fol­low­ing the sit­u­a­tion in the Philip­pines closely but, as with all coun­tries, would leave it to the na­tional bish­ops’ con­fer­ence to make its po­si­tion on in­ter­nal mat­ters known to gov­ern­ments. The of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the is­sue, how­ever called the ex­tra-ju­di­cial killings in the Philip­pines wor­ry­ing. After Duterte took power, the first of­fi­cial com­ment from the Philip­pines’ con­fer­ence of bish­ops came in mid-Septem­ber. By then the pres­i­dent had been in of­fice for two-and-a-half months and al­most 3,000 peo­ple had died. In that mes­sage, the CBCP said “deaths be­cause of po­lice en­coun­ters, deaths from ex­tra-ju­di­cial killings” were cause for mourn­ing and that drug ad­dicts needed heal­ing. But it also echoed the pres­i­dent’s lan­guage, not­ing that the drug users “may have be­haved as scum and rub­bish”. Cruz said the Church was be­ing “pru­dent” be­cause so many peo­ple sup­ported the sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion of drug deal­ers. “The CBCP also has to be very care­ful be­cause it might un­nec­es­sar­ily of­fend a good num­ber of peo­ple with good­will, who are Catholics them­selves,” he said. Un­der longserv­ing Car­di­nal Jaime Sin, the Philip­pines Church helped top­ple Pres­i­dents Mar­cos and Estrada and cam­paigned against the death penalty, which was sus­pended in 2006.

Sin, who re­tired in 2003 and died two years later, saw the Church’s role as so­cio-po­lit­i­cal. How­ever, be­fore he re­tired, he ini­ti­ated the divi­sion of the Arch­dio­cese of Manila into mul­ti­ple dio­ce­ses all run in­de­pen­dently un­der dif­fer­ent bish­ops. Now, priests say, the Church’s lead­er­ship is more frag­mented and, be­cause of that, car­ries less clout. Since the divi­sion, the Church has lost crit­i­cal po­lit­i­cal bat­tles, most no­tably fail­ing to block a re­pro­duc­tive health bill pro­mot­ing ar­ti­fi­cial con­tra­cep­tion in 2012. —Reuters

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