Catholic lead­ers in the Philip­pines are in­creas­ingly stri­dent in de­nounc­ing the pres­i­dent’s drug war, in which thou­sands have been killed merely on sus­pi­cion

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY EMILY RAUHALA IN MANILA

A world of sin. A weary sav­ior. Filipinos know the story well.

Since com­ing to power last sum­mer, Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte has used bib­li­cal lan­guage to build a case for mass killings, vow­ing to sac­ri­fice him­self, even his son, to cleanse the na­tion of crime.

Con­jur­ing a world in which evil stalks the in­no­cent, Duterte launched a wave of vi­o­lence that has claimed at least 7,000 lives. With his crit­ics cursed and shamed, and with pub­lic sup­port for the pres­i­dent run­ning high, the es­tab­lish­ment, in­clud­ing the Ro­man Catholic Church, has for the most part stayed quiet.

But now, more than seven months into Duterte’s ten­ure, with the death toll climb­ing night by night, the coun­try’s Catholic hi­er­ar­chy is find­ing its voice. In a pas­toral let­ter pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary, church lead­ers de­nounced Duterte’s cam­paign as a “reign of ter­ror” against the poor.

Em­bold­ened by their bish­ops’ stance, priests, nuns and mis­sion­ar­ies are also tak­ing a stand, of­fer­ing sanc­tu­ary to fear­ful wit­nesses, pay­ing for funerals and or­ga­niz­ing ral­lies. Re­li­gious lead­ers who once sup­ported the pres­i­dent are turn­ing their backs on him, po­ten­tially hurt­ing his po­lit­i­cal ap­peal.

At stake are the lives of thou­sands and the cred­i­bil­ity of an in­sti­tu­tion that has long been at the heart of Philip­pine life. Re­li­gious lead­ers helped to top­ple the dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand Mar­cos in 1986 and have since led cam­paigns for en­vi­ron­men­tal and civil rights.

Yet many see the role of the Catholic Church re­ced­ing. Crit­ics, in­clud­ing Duterte, ac­cuse church lead­ers of cor­rup­tion. The bish­ops have aban­doned their role as a na­tional con­science, al­ly­ing them­selves in­stead with the oli­garchic rul­ing class, their crit­ics say.

Some priests, in­clud­ing the Rev. Joel Tab­ora, who heads a univer­sity in Duterte’s home town, ini­tially backed the pres­i­dent be­cause he had vowed to return power to the or­di­nary Filipino by force­fully tack­ling crime.

Last month, with ev­i­dence of po­lice im­punity mount­ing, Tab­ora wrote a let­ter con­demn­ing the pres­i­dent. “My vote for Ro­drigo Roa Duterte was a vote for him as pres­i­dent of the Philip­pines. It was not a vote for him as God. Nor a vote for him as the Evil One,” Tab­ora wrote.

But Duterte de­lights in danc­ing with the devil. When the bish­ops de­nounced the killing spree, he did not re­pent. “I will go to hell,” he told his coun­try­men. “Come join me.”

‘Mes­siah com­plex’

Filipinos like to joke that they are more Catholic than the pope. The coun­try bans not only abor­tion but also di­vorce, and some priests op­pose the use of con­doms be­cause they are not con­ducive to a “cul­ture of life” — and that makes Duterte’s rise all the more re­mark­able.

Philip­pine po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have learned to cater to the church’s agenda. More than 80 per­cent of Filipinos are Catholic or iden­tify as Catholic, mak­ing the faith­ful a po­tent po­lit­i­cal force.

When Duterte en­tered na­tional pol­i­tics af­ter be­ing a long­time vice mayor and mayor in the south­ern city of Davao, he did not court the clergy — he at­tacked them. As a child, he was mo­lested by a priest, he said. The church, he de­clared, is full of hyp­ocrites.

Duterte of­fered Filipinos a dif­fer­ent sort of sal­va­tion. He did not want to be pres­i­dent, he said, but if the peo­ple needed him — and they needed him — he would “kill all” the coun­try’s crim­i­nals in six months, dump­ing bod­ies un­til the “fish will grow fat.”

As pres­i­dent, he has de­liv­ered on the prom­ise of blood­shed, ex­hort­ing the po­lice to kill and as­sur­ing them that he, not they, will suf­fer any con­se­quences.

The Rev. Amado Pi­cardal, a Catholic priest who has fol­lowed the pres­i­dent since his days as the “death squad mayor” of Davao, has spent years con­tem­plat­ing why so many Filipinos fall in be­hind this “false prophet.”

“Duterte says, ‘What I am do­ing is jus­ti­fied be­cause I am elim­i­nat­ing evil. They don’t have souls. They are killers,’ ” Pi­cardal said. “It’s re­ally a mes­siah com­plex. It’s that idea of to­tal power and con­trol. He is God. He is the law.”

For Filipinos fed up with crime and ou­traged by cor­rup­tion, Duterte’s bold prom­ises are ap­peal­ing. The prob­lem, said the Rev. Bobby dela Cruz, a former drug dealer who now works with drug users, is that there is no room for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion or for­give­ness.

Those in­cluded on Duterte’s “drug lists” are of­ten killed be­fore they have a chance to clear their names. They will never get a day in court. “God is mer­ci­ful,” dela Cruz said. “Duterte is not.”

‘Pray for us’

Fear of a Duterte out­burst had kept church lead­ers quiet for too long, sev­eral priests said. Some have been sup­port­ing drug-war vic­tims be­hind the scenes for months. Now, with the bish­ops be­hind them, a few are open­ing up about their ac­tivism and urg­ing oth­ers to join.

In Manila, the Na­tional Shrine of Our Mother of Per­pet­ual Help, known as Baclaran Church, has opened its gates and doors, pro­vid­ing sanc­tu­ary to a small num­ber of at-risk wit­nesses.

In late Fe­bru­ary, the church hosted the mother, sis­ters, nieces and nephew of a trans­gen­der woman named Heart who was dragged from her home and shot dead shortly af­ter an al­ter­ca­tion with po­lice, as well as Ryan, an 18-year-old wit­ness to a shoot­ing that killed seven, in­clud­ing three of his teenage friends.

In the hard­est-hit com­mu­ni­ties, which are dis­pro­por­tion­ately poor, los­ing fam­ily mem­bers, es­pe­cially bread­win­ners, is cat­a­strophic. Baclaran is us­ing its funds to pay funeral ex­penses, said Brother Jun San­ti­ago, a mis­sion­ary who helps af­fected fam­i­lies, and to as­sist sur­vivors in get­ting back on their feet.

Across the city, the poor­est par­ishes are strug­gling to help peo­ple come to terms with the trauma of state-backed killings. The Rev. John Era, who stud­ied psy­chi­a­try in the United States be­fore re­turn­ing to the Philip­pines last fall, said peo­ple have seen rel­a­tives shot or have stum­bled upon their bod­ies. In the United States, such emo­tional trauma might lead to years of coun­sel­ing — some­thing no­body in his com­mu­nity can af­ford.

The Rev. Gil­bert Bil­lena, a priest who once sup­ported Duterte, said Catholics have a duty to help those in need — and small num­bers are.

A big­ger chal­lenge, he said, is con­vinc­ing the coun­try that killing in the name of stop­ping crime is cruel and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, a strat­egy more likely to com­pound poverty than to wipe our crime.

“With 7,000 killed, I think some­thing has to be done as a peo­ple,” he said. “Duterte promised change to the masses, to the poor, but what kind of change can there be when you are be­ing sum­mar­ily killed?”

Those with in­flu­ence must be brave enough to chal­lenge a pres­i­dent who does not fear God or any­body else, Bil­lena said. He hopes more peo­ple of in­flu­ence will do so.

For now, at Baclaran, they re­peat the bish­ops’ ap­peal. “Mary, mother of per­pet­ual help, pray for us.”


TOP: Peo­ple hon­or­ing vic­tims of ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings leave Manila’s Baclaran Church to join a vigil Feb. 17. ABOVE: Devo­tees pray in the Catholic church, a haven to the poor and those who feel their lives are threat­ened by the state.


TOP: The de Chavez fam­ily shel­ters in Manila’s Baclaran Church. Heart, a trans­gen­der fam­ily mem­ber sus­pected of drug ties, was killed Jan. 10 by men thought to be po­lice. MID­DLE: Heart’s mother, Elena de Chavez. ABOVE: The Rev. Bobby dela Cruz, an ex-drug dealer, min­is­ters to users.

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