Church Suffers Crisis Of Confidence Over Murderous Drugs War In Philippines

A man sleeps next to the coffin of a man who was killed during a drug buy-bust operation in Manila, Philippines this month.Reuters

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is suffering a crisis of confidence in how to respond to the war on drugs that has cost the lives of at least 3,600 drugs pushers and addicts at the hands of police and vigilantes.

President Rodrigo Duterte, a former mayor known as "The Punisher" and who has described the drugs problem in the Philippines as a "pandemic", launched his campaign after his inauguration in June.

Hundreds of thousands of people handed themselves in to avoid being killed for the bounties on offer.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Philippine bishops' conference, said in a pastoral statement read out in churches in August that he was deeply concerned that his country was becoming a "killing fields nation".

He warned: "Is not humanity going down to the dregs when bloodthirsty humans encourage the killers and ask for more blood? Will you kill me again and again on social media for saying this?

"From a generation of drug addicts, shall we become a generation of street murderers? Can the do-it-yourself justice system assure us of a safer and better future?"

Most illegal drug use in the Philippines is of methamphetamine hydrochloride, known as shabu.

Duterte, who is not a churchgoer and who says he was sexually abused by a priest as a boy, took no notice of the Archbishop. 

Now, in interviews with Reuters, priests have described how they are now uncertain how to challenge the killings.

Duterte had a 76 per cent satisfaction rating in a survey released last week. His war on drugs is backed by the vast majority of the population. 

Father Luciano Felloni, a priest in Manila, said at least 30 people including a child and a pregnant woman had been killed in his neighbourhood. "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," he said.

Other clergy, who asked Reuters for anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said it was dangerous to question the kilings. They fear that anyone who criticises the killings could suffer a similar fate.

Some priests back the campaign. Father Joel Tabora, of Davao where Duterte was mayor, said: "Are the means unnecessarily illegitimate? People are dying, yes, but on the other hand, millions of people are being helped."

The Philippines has the third biggest population of Catholics in the world.  Nearly eight in ten of its 100 million population are Catholic.

People gather around religious statues and objects after a service in a chapel at Camp Crame, the headquarters of Philippine National Police in Manila.Reuters

Father Francis Lucas, of San Felipe Neri Parish Church in Manila, said the country was undergoing a moral crisis and questioned why the killings were happening.

He later told Reuters the Church is no longer as powerful as it once was.

"How come everybody wants the Church to act when others don't? Yes, we have influence but times have also changed."

One sign of the Church's waning influence in secular affairs was its failing to block a bill promoting artificial contraception in 2012.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told Reuters the Church was free to make statements, and there was no cause even to imply that anyone in the clergy would be targeted. He said: "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."