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Sean WilliamsJanuary 25, 2018

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David was already an outspoken critic of the drug war in the Philippines when an unarmed teen was gunned down just minutes from his parish. On Aug. 16 at around 8 p.m., Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old student, was chased by police down an alley in the cramped Manila suburb of Caloocan.

Later that night the boy’s body was found, curled in the fetal position with a gunshot wound to his head. A pistol and a small bag of shabu—a local crystal methamphetamine—were found too. The police called it self defense: The boy had fired a .45-caliber pistol at them while working as a mule for a local drug lord. CCTV showed otherwise. Two plain-clothes cops beat and dragged delos Santos away and left him to die beside a basketball court.

Bishop David was enraged. Kian’s death was “a very specific case of abuse,” he said, adding, “It seems there’s no rule of law anymore. Is this what the drug war is about?” Witnesses came forward to counter the police officers’ claims. On Sept. 9 one of these witnesses, a 13-year-old girl whose father was in jail for drug offenses, ran to Bishop David’s cathedral, San Roque, pleading for shelter. He took her in.

The police soon followed. They had posted bail for the girl’s father. They wanted the bishop to bring her into police custody for questioning. Bishop David refused. He kept the police outside and welcomed the father in. Soon the father decided he, too, would stay with the bishop. “I love the church,” he was quoted as saying.

The image of a clergyman holding off the police at the church gates was a powerful one for the community. It was a significant act of resistance amid growing opposition to the drug war. The Catholic Church has slowly found its voice against a campaign of violence that, in President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, known as Rody, has one of the world’s most ruthless and capricious leaders.

But the Catholic Church in the Philippines has often worked to chart a middle path between the nation’s leaders and its people. And though critics say it has been slow to react to a war that, so far, has claimed up to 13,000 lives, some believe it could play a pivotal role again.

The Church Through History

The Catholic Church has been entangled in politics in the Philippines for almost five centuries. It was among the biggest colonial imports that arrived with Spanish conquistadors who, led by Ferdinand Magellan, first washed up on the shores of Cebu in 1521. Before then most inhabitants of the islands were practitioners of indigenous traditions, Muslims or atheists.

Under colonial rule, church and state were one, with Spanish friars one important part of governing the new territory. Catholic churches were built as the centerpieces of barangays, the country’s smallest civic subdivision (today the Philippines’ 7,641 islands are home to 41,969 barangays). Under the friars Manila became a key entrepôt between China and Mexico. Trade flourished.

But apartheid between Europeans and indigenous Filipinos grew such that by the 19th century the latter were still obliged to kiss the hand of any passing Spanish clergyman and were forbidden to break bread at the same table.

By 1896 resentment against the “friarocracy” exploded in a war for independence that broke out when Jose Rizal, an author and icon, was executed for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy. Rizal, who is called the George Washington of the Philippines, was Jesuit-educated and once remarked that he would have joined the order if he had not become a revolutionary novelist. But his hatred of Spanish friars and their abuses fueled his influential 1887 novel Noli Me Tángere’ (Touch Me Not). “I have to believe much in God because I have lost my faith in man,” cries the protagonist Juan Ibarra. The Katipunan (abbreviated locally as the K.K.K.), a secret, masonic revolutionary group of which Rizal was a key member, declared war in Caloocan, just a mile from San Roque. Peace would not return to the islands for decades.

The Catholic Church has slowly found its voice against a campaign of violence.

By 1898 Spain had lost almost all of its empire and sold the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. But by 1902 the Philippines was an American colony. Sporadic fighting continued, and atrocities were committed on both sides. Amid the bloodshed a clamor for religious freedom grew. The Philippines won independence in 1946. But the church’s biggest political stand would arrive much later, under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, an attorney whose rule from 1965 to 1986 was marked by brutality and excess.

In 1972, amid insurgencies by Muslim groups on the southern island of Mindanao and China-backed communists countrywide, Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law. Civil rights were suspended, the media shut down and Congress closed. Opposition politicians were detained. Some were tortured. Marcos and his glamorous wife, Imelda, who amassed a shoe collection so great it now inhabits a museum, are reckoned to have stolen $10 billion while in office.

The church had been energized by the Second Vatican Council to play a more active role in lay, grassroots communities. This grassroots work brought clergy and lay leaders into conflict with the martial law government, though bishops remained divided on how to engage in “critical collaboration” with Marcos. When Marcos’s henchmen murdered the opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983, Cardinal Jaime Sin called on Filipinos to take to the “parliament of the streets.”

On Feb. 7, 1986, amid widespread accusations of fraud, Marcos won a fourth term in office. Mass protest followed. By Feb. 23 tanks began amassing at military and police headquarters in Metro Manila. Cardinal Sin took to Radio Veritas, a Catholic station that broadcast homilies that became a constant thorn in Marcos’s side.

drug bust
Filipinos arrested during a drug buy-bust operation wait to be taken to a police station for verification in 2016 at a slum area in Manila. (CNS photo/Francis R. Malasig, EPA)

“This is Cardinal Sin speaking to the people of Metro Manila,” began a speech that inspired a coming revolution. “I am calling our people to support our two ‘good friends’ [the army and the police] at the camp. If any of you could be around at Camp Aguinaldo to show your solidarity and your support in this very crucial period when our two good friends have shown their idealism, I would be very happy.... Please come.” Around 50,000 people then crowded the camps, preventing the armed forces from leaving.

A two-million-strong, three-day demonstration on Manila’s circuitous Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), one of the city’s main thoroughfares, followed. The Marcoses fled to Hawaii. Aquino’s widow, Corazon, or “Cory,” was inaugurated as president on Feb. 25. Rodrigo Duterte, then a 40-year-old law graduate in the city of Davao on the island of Mindanao, benefited directly from this change. His appointment to the city’s vice mayorship came directly from Cory Aquino—despite his admitting to shooting a classmate in college in 1972.

Duterte became mayor of Davao in 1988. He soon earned the nickname “Punisher,” serving as mayor while “death squads” rumored to have government backing claimed over 1,000 lives. Duterte himself admitted to killing three alleged rapist-kidnappers just months into his first term. His ruthlessness is masked by a laconic, laissez-faire demeanor. He prefers untucked shirts to suits and delivers chilling statements—such as comparing his drug war to the Holocaust—with all the insouciance of a Hollywood wiseguy. Unlike Marcos, he is unkempt, uncouth and often sleeps in small hotel rooms rather than in Manila’s sprawling, Spanish-colonial presidential palace, Malacañang.

The Catholic Church has been entangled in politics in the Philippines for almost five centuries.

That everyman image is a key reason Duterte became president last June. The Philippines is deeply corrupt and economically divided. In 2011, 40 families, most of whose wealth stems from the Spanish era, reaped 76.5 percent of its GDP growth. Since the turn of the century, the country has moved 32 places on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which surveys citizens on how problematic they consider day-to-day malfeasance to be. The Philippines moved from 69th to 101st of 176 countries.

Several of those families were represented in the election. But they could not match Duterte’s savvy brand of social-media populism. Facebook and Twitter were flooded with pro-Duterte pages and accounts, many of questionable authenticity. His team flooded the nation with red-and-blue wristbands as well as bumper stickers emblazoned with Duterte’s punching-fist motif, or the abbreviation “DU30,” which is pronounced “doo-thirty,” a phonetic echoing of the candidate’s name.

In a speech announcing his run for president, Duterte attacked Pope Francis, calling him Putang ina—a “son of a whore”—when referring to the pope’s visit to the Philippines. After assuming office, Duterte’s attacks continued. He went after Barack Obama, Muslims, China, the European Union and the media. He is ribald and makes light of rape. Duterte has singled out drugs, particularly shabu, as the Philippines’ greatest domestic threat. “I have to slaughter these idiots who are destroying my country,” he said at his inaugural State of the Nation address in July 2016. Duterte estimates the number of drug addicts to be 3.7 million. The country’s Official Dangerous Drugs Board estimates it to be 1.8 million (Duterte fired the board's chief last May). He has cut funding to rights groups and dismissed critics as pedophiles.

Priests concelebrate Mass offered for martial law victims Sept. 21 in Manila, Philippines. 
(CNS photo/Rolex Dela Pena, EPA)

The police have recorded 6,000 deaths under investigation. The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates has recorded at least 12,000. Over 100,000 people have been arrested, and prisons are packed like slave galleons. Duterte has pledged to kill 100,000 “drug personalities.” Duterte is like the movie character Dirty Harry, one Manila taxi driver told me, holding his fingers up like a gun. “You do something bad now you have two things: the cemetery and the hospital.”

‘A Normal, Everyday Thing’

I have spent many weeks covering the drug war. In that time I have seen bodies slumped over vehicles, in ditches, streets and alleyways, amid the tungsten sprawl of Metro Manila. Police rarely take statements and arrest almost nobody. One night in August the police killed 32 people in raids north of the capital.

Phrases like “human rights” and “extrajudicial killing” are sprinkled like shibboleths into everyday conversation. But the violence has become quotidian and locals are numbed. One evening the family of Ernesto Tapang, known as Brader, showed me CCTV footage of the moment four men pulled up beside him in a black S.U.V., got out and shot him dead. The police believe it was a case of mistaken identity. Nobody has been charged. “It’s like a normal, everyday[thing],” his sister Emelita said of the killing.

Duterte has strangled political opposition. His most vocal critic, Senator Leila de Lima, the former justice secretary, is currently detained on suspicion of corruption charges. “You can count with your ten fingers those who are readily vocal and call out Duterte’s actions and words every day,” she told me by email. “With a civil society like this, you think anyone has any business complaining that the church is not doing more?”

The Philippines is among Asia’s most Christian nations. Today 80.6 percent of the population (74.2 million Filipinos) are Catholic. The Philippines is home to the world’s third-largest Catholic population, behind Brazil and Mexico (and just above the United States). Ninety-five percent of Filipino Catholics say they view Pope Francis favorably. How could a candidate who pilloried the pontiff make it into office?

One night in August the police killed 32 people in raids north of the capital.

As Duterte’s presidential campaign gathered pace, Catholic officials across the Philippines voiced concerns about his human rights record. Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, a city in Mindanao, wrote that summary killings were “illegal, immoral and sinful.” The Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference (B.B.C.), a lay-clergy social justice coalition, wrote that it could not “vote for anyone who has done nothing to apprehend the perpetrators of more than 1,400 extrajudicial killings under his city administration.”

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (C.B.C.P.), promised “vigilant collaboration” with the incoming administration, echoing the “critical collaboration” Sin promised under Marcos. Villegas refused to push back harder, writing that “Mine is the silence of respect for those who consider us their enemies but whose good we truly pray for and whose happiness we want to see unfold.” Three bishops, from Cubao and Puerto Princesa, praised Duterte’s “simplicity.”

The B.B.C. offered implicit support for the outsider’s popularity, noting that “our country has a long history of failed development because we have repeatedly voted corrupt politicians and political dynasties into office.”

Many other priests openly voted for Duterte, enthusiastic because of promises to restore social order and left-wing policies that chimed with church commitments, made during the C.B.C.P.’s second plenary council in 1991, to confront the dismal realities of poverty in the Philippines. Many of the flock followed suit: Duterte took 38 percent of a national poll, in which a historic 81.62 percent of the electorate voted (the U.S. presidential election in 2016, by contrast, drew just 58 percent of the electorate).

“From the moment Duterte stepped into the office he started firing at the church, putting it on the defensive.”

The church, too, faced its own problems. Cardinal Sin led another bloodless revolution, against President Joseph Estrada, in 2001, orchestrating a second march along EDSA to protest Estrada’s financial mismanagement. But the cardinal died in 2005. And in the years leading to Duterte’s ascent the church was weakened by a spate of scandals and cover-ups. In 2013 a book called Altar of Secrets, by the investigative journalist Aries Rufo, exposed many of them. Sex crimes were hushed. A church-owned bank went bankrupt. RadioVeritas failed to account for donations. Prelates drove around in expensive Mitsubishi Pajero S.U.V.s. Many saw this as a sign not just of extravagance, but of the church’s tolerance for the deeply corrupt government of Gloria Arroyo. They were perceived to have taken the S.U.V.s in exchange for silence in criticizing a political ally. The Catholic Church was losing its common touch.

Duterte has aimed jabs at each weakness. “Go straight to God,” he told supporters last February. “Don’t go through the confessional.” Duterte has offered to write a book about the church, entitled Hypocrisy. He has called its leaders “full of shit.” More damaging have been accusations that Duterte himself was abused by an American Jesuit priest as a teenager. “You criticize the police, you criticize me,” he told the clergy, during a January 2017 speech. “For what? You have the money. You are all crazy...when we were making confessions to you, we were being molested. They are touching us. What is your moral ascendancy: religion? What is the meaning of it?”

“From the moment Duterte stepped into the office he started firing at the church, putting it on the defensive,” Carlos Conde, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specializes in the Philippines, told me. “And it worked.” Few members of the clergy offered vigorous rebukes in the early weeks of Duterte’s leadership. He has also attempted to rehabilitate Marcos, whose family supported his candidacy. And Duterte has even successfully lobbied to have Ferdinand Sr. buried in Metro Manila’s Heroes’ Cemetery. Many fear the moves are an attempt to validate and repeat Marcos’s enactment of martial law, something Duterte has already done across Mindanao in the wake of an ISIS-inspired siege in the Islamic city of Marawi this May. It is still in effect.

“Stop the killing and start the healing. Instead of accusing [SUDs] roughly and harshly, try to understand them and start healing them.”

Last September, I visited Manila’s iconic Miranda Square to witness a clergy-led protest against martial law. The chant Buhay Na May Dignidad Para Sa Lahat—“Life With Dignity for All People”—was repeated between prayers and hymns. #NeverAgain trended on Twitter. “There are people who are anti-Marcos and pro-Duterte,” the writer Clara Balaguer told me. “That’s insane. What you’re seeing now is history repeating itself, and all the steps are being put into place for martial law to be declared in everything but name.”

History may have been repeating itself in Malacañang. But it was also doing so at the pulpit. The rally was small: I estimated it at around 2,000, with plenty of Duterte supporters standing on its perimeter. But the church was finding its voice against Duterte. In the year since the rally, it has gotten far louder.

‘We Decided to Do Something to Help the Person’

In a small room of the St. Francis of Assisi and Santa Quiteria Parish, in Caloocan, about 50 parishioners are gathered, sitting on plastic chairs. Religious and local council leaders address them from a raised platform. Noodles and bottled water are served. Fans beat back a numbing, midday heat.

It is the first day of Santa Quiteria’s drug rehabilitation program, which welcomed the fourth cohort of participants since December last year. Healing and victimhood are key tenets; attendees are “substance use disorder” victims, or SUDs, not addicts. Around 30 people will begin the program. Two-thirds will probably complete it. It is a far cry from the government’s attempts at rehab, which consist of enrolling suspected users—those who avoid death—in zumba classes.

In a room above the event, two priests, Edgar Guantero and George Alfonso, outline their separate visions to me over coffee and cake. They are careful not to over-criticize the government or the new president. Speaking ill of the pope is Duterte’s “discretion,” Father Alfonso, who is loud and loquacious, says wryly. But Father Alfonso cannot hide the fact that their view of the drug problem is very different from Duterte’s.

“We are not denying that drugs are a problem in our society,” says the soft-spoken Father Guantero. “But instead of acting about the war against them, we decided to do something to help the person.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announces the disbandment of police operations against illegal drugs Jan. 30 in Manila. (CNS photo/Ezra Acayan, Reuters)

The work at Santa Quiteria, he says, mirrors the local devotion of Salubong, the meeting between the risen Christ and Mary. “We are trying to not really divert but give an alternative to our government,” says Alfonso. “Stop the killing and start the healing. Instead of accusing [SUDs] roughly and harshly, try to understand them and start healing them.”

Bishop David’s stand during Kian’s case appears to have marked a step from church statements to physical action. It is part of a wider movement against the drug war’s rising body count. On Sept. 8, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila issued a statement condemning the killing, writing: “With pain and horror, we continue to get daily news of the killings around the country. We cannot allow the destruction of lives to become normal. We cannot govern the nation by killing. We cannot foster a humane and decent Filipino culture by killing.” A week later Cardinal Tagle ordered that church bells should toll for 15 minutes each evening across the capital, through Nov. 27, 2017.

“The brutal murder of Kian delos Santos and other minor victims has galvanized an increasingly organized opposition to the president, but it is unlikely to deter the president from employing draconian measures in his anti-drug campaign,” the author Richard Heydarian, who has chronicled Duterte’s rise to power, told me. “This is not only due to the fact that Duterte’s raison d’état and raison d’être seem to be the elimination of drug personalities, but also the fact that institutional checks and balances remain largely in hibernation mode.”

The bishops conference maintained its “vigilant collaboration” until this January, when President Villegas issued a statement decrying the war’s “reign of terror” in poor communities. While drug trafficking needed to be “stopped and overcome…the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers,” he added.

Finding a consistent voice across denominational and political lines has been difficult. One group doing so is Rise Up, an umbrella body of nongovernmental organizations across Metro Manila. Its wood-paneled office sits above a church beside EDSA, the site of Marcos’s ouster. When I visited, the roof was leaking and only four people were there. But it is grassroots society, not watertight roofing, that will turn the tide of public opinion against the drug war, according to Norma Dollaga, who is also a Methodist deacon: “The government calls illegal drugs criminality, but we see it as a social issue…. Most of those we visit are from poor communities.”

According to a survey in September 2017, three out of five Filipinos believe only the poor are killed in the drug war.

Duterte himself has admitted as much, calling the deaths of poor Filipinos a necessary step in dismantling the drug trade “apparatus.” According to a survey in September 2017, three out of five Filipinos believe only the poor are killed in the drug war. Almost half of those questioned believe the police are killing innocent people. With Duterte’s stranglehold on the legislature, the fightback against the war on drugs will not be carried out in Congress but on the streets. That is where the church is most able to influence its flock, through small, basic ecclesial communities that have formed an increasingly fundamental part of the Philippine church’s structure since its first plenary council in 1953.

An added obstacle may be the initiative Mamamayang Ayaw sa Anomalya, Mamamayang Ayaw sa Ilegal na Droga (“Citizens don’t want the anomaly; people don’t want illegal drugs”). Commonly known as MASA MASID, it is a government initiative that aims to root out drug crime in the poorest communities in the Philippines.

Some have likened the movement to a simple neighborhood watch, where citizens are encouraged to be alert to crime. But others have voiced concern over the use of MASA MASID drop boxes, in which locals can write the names of those they suspect to be associated with drugs. Those on the lists can be caught up in Tokhang (“knock-and-plead”) police raids. Many are killed while resisting. “Any person in our country, any citizen, his or her name could come out in any watchlist because the war on drugs...does not require evidence, it simply requires names,” said a leading lawyer, Jose Manuel Diokno.

If the church’s grassroots campaigning grows, it will find itself in direct opposition to MASA MASID, Conde told me. “If the Duterte administration makes good use of MASA MASID...a lot more people are going to die,” he said. Catholic leaders have already been threatened. Father Alfonso and Father Guantero told me many of their congregation have grown afraid to be associated with the church. “Attacks on church people and lay workers will increase, and it can be threats, harassment, God forbid more killings,” added Conde. “I’m not saying that’s happening now. But we should be watchful for that.”

Whatever happens, there has undoubtedly been a shift in how many Filipinos view their president and his drug war. And, as the sands of opinion shift a little, the church is getting right back out on the frontline—just as it did in 1986.

“The sheer number of killings during martial law will pale in comparison with the records of killings in the war on drugs,” Edwin A. Gariguez, of Caritas Philippines, told me. “And the authoritarian rule of Duterte is beginning to become even worse than the martial law of Marcos, which he tried to disguise through some semblance [of] legality. Duterte is more brazen, unreasonably vindictive, with little or no regard for accountability.”

I left Manila on Sept. 21, the 45th anniversary of the date Marcos first invoked martial law in 1972. That day the streets were lined with thousands of protesters who had gathered to warn about a return to the most repressive years of the Marcos dictatorship. The chances Duterte would make good on threats to re-enact them seemed far greater than they were the previous year. “We have only martial law in Mindanao, but the murders are all-over more than 13,000 now since last year,” said Archbishop Villegas that night from a pulpit three hours north of the capital. “Killing the poor and the poorest is the only solution they know to stop crime. Fake news abounds and liars succeed to mislead and confuse.”

“We must stand up for the real Filipino,” he added. “We are honorable. We are respectful. We are pro-life. We are honest. We are brave. We are losing our national soul to the Father of Lies and Prince of Darkness.”

My taxi crawled through the Manila traffic, and I could see protesters holding out religious placards and hand-painted psalms. As the sun set across Manila’s smog-filled skyline, they held lighted candles.

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