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Philippine Church quietly pushing alternative narrative on drugs

MANILA (SE): The Church in The Philippines was stumped last year when the president-elect, Rodrigo Duterte, embarked on a mass murder campaign against anyone associated with drugs even before he moved into Malacañang.
Its first stumbling moves came from a couple of bishops, but they quickly wilted in the face of a barrage of expletives from the Mouth from the South before retreating to plan a second move.
But mostly led by sisters, lay people and a few priests at the grass roots level, a method of hands on resistance began to emerge, which eventually the courageous president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, was able to give public voice to.
While Duterte sprouted fear, guns and blood, the religious quietly acted out their own version of empathy, compassion and care, and little by little their Christian narrative of redemption began to have an impact.
A first fledgling foray came from a group of university students who lay in front of the Department of Justice holding placards. Then came the odd memorial altar outside churches in Manila inviting people to light a candle and pray for the dead and their bereaved families.
A Church with a poor record on catering to the drug addicted began to open places of refuge and treatment until today convents, novitiates, schools and parochial centres for the needy have become sites of refuge, support and civic education.
In an article published in the New York Times, Sheila Coronelaug argues that the series of Masses and processions with their pointed political messages, the testimonials from victims’ families on the drug policies of the state and continual preaching in Churches are forging bonds of opposition among people.
Coronelaug claims, “As the number of drug-related extrajudicial killings has risen, protests have multiplied—some led by members of the clergy, others by citizens spurred on by the Church’s lessons in compassion. The Catholic clergy is providing both a language and a method of resistance against Mr. Duterte’s policies.”
She notes that although far from the flamboyant manner in which Jaime Cardinal Sin led his forces in the heady days of People Power, as the Church lives in a new era today without the moral authority it may have commanded 31 years ago, it still lives in the streets and alleyways of cities and villages.
Priests have been on the receiving end of hard lessons, carrying out funerals for victims of Duterte’s blood lust and comforting families left behind. More of the poor ice addicts and petty distributors have sought their protection, which has opened their eyes to a world many never knew existed.
But Coronelaug says that the siege of Marawi has complicated the matter, as it has brought politics in The Philippines to a virtual standstill.
“The political opposition is effete (ineffectual), apparently incapable of articulating an alternative to the president’s populism. Human rights advocates have been unable to marshal public outrage, even after the president threatened to behead them,” Coronelaug points out.
“The Church, however, is galvanising opposition among the faithful,” she notes, citing Bishop Broderick Pabillo holding a Mass for victims of the antidrug measures and initiating the Thou Shall Not Kill campaign.
Banners stating the commandment are displayed in churches all around the capital—where nightly, it seemed, corpses of drug suspects were being found in the streets, hands bound or heads wrapped in packing tape.
The next month, Archbishop Villegas instructed the priests in his diocese to read a statement saying, “Both the guilty and the innocent are human.”
The Association of Major Religious Superiors in The Philippines followed suit. “We are alarmed at the silence of the government, groups and majority of the people in the face of these killings,” it said in a statement. “Evil prospers when good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke).
Coronelaug notes that Duterte has not taken this lying down and has struck back, trying to undermine the Church’s claims to moral virtue.
Having no articulate or rational comeback, in January this year Duterte simply blurted, “I challenge the Catholic Church. You are full of shit. You all smell bad, corruption and all.”
Duterte has insulted the pope, accused a bishop of having two wives and revived old already disproven allegations that half a dozen bishops received luxury vehicles from a government charity in 2009 in exchange for supporting Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
He has castigated the whole of the Philippine clergy for living opulently amid poverty, sexually abusing children and opposing a popular law requiring state clinics to provide free birth control.
“Politicians have challenged the Church’s authority before,” Coronelaug notes, “but never like this, with such profanity and such disrespect for its values. Past presidents tried to woo religious leaders with tactful language and concessions, and expressed deference even when they were being chastised.”
Nevertheless, she says that the Church seems unbowed by Duterte’s lashings; some of its responses have been blistering or provocative. The bishops’ conference has called the government’s antidrug measures a reign of terror.
At Christmas, the Redemptorists hosted an outdoor exhibit of photographs of dead drug suspects, displaying the poster-size shots in the grounds of the immense Baclaran Church in Manila.
Many of the photographs were taken by the Redemptorists’ own Brother Ciriaco Santiago, who under the name of Brother Jun trawls the streets at night with the media taking his own shots of the dead bodies and aftermath of the frequent murders in the hovels and back alleys of the squalid city.
More discreet, but no less subversive are the clergy’s efforts to protect witnesses to police abuse. It is expanding its drug-counselling and rehabilitation programmes—by the same token also expanding the notion of who deserves its compassion.
“Providing refuge to political dissidents during the Marcos era was one thing, but now drug users and dealers? What might the Church do next?” Coronelaug asks.
Recently a drug dealer who had received shelter from a priest returned to his parish, but this time to help prepare for a protest by silk-screening white T-shirts with the phrase, No to Martial Law.
The riff raff and the power sodden of ancient Rome may have flocked to the Coliseum hoping that the blood of Christians would brighten an otherwise dull afternoon, but today its ruins tell of a different narrative—one of tolerance, repentance and acceptance of neighbour.

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