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Church must tackle drug menace

HONG KONG (SE): “In the name of God, stop the killings! May the justice of God come upon those responsible for the killings! For the good of the country, stop the killings! The toll of ‘murders under investigation’ must stop now”, was the cry for peace from Bishop Socrates Villegas, the archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan and the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, urging the Duterte administration for a stop to the killing of drug suspects. 
The global war on illegal drugs has been particularly brutal in the Philippines since the new president, Rodrigo Duterte, took office. Latest data from the Philippine National Police (PNP) revealed that, as of early October 2017, at least 13,000 people were reportedly killed since Duterte rallied authorities to intensify efforts to crack down illegal drugs peddlers. Many of theses fatalities were classified as victims of extrajudicial or vigilante killings.
As the crackdown continues and the death toll climbs, public opinion is divided but, hope is not completely lost. A handful of Church leaders offer a better perspective and solution to the burnig issue of the time. The example of Pope Francis in adopting refugees encouraged Filipino priests and bishops to open parish doors to drug offenders seeking refuge from the spate of state-sponsored killings.
In Northern Philippines of Nueva Ecija, Claretian Missionary Father Arnold M. Abelardo is taking the mission of protecting people in crisis personally. The missionary, who is doing his postgraduate studies on counselling in Manila, also runs a centre for the people in need, Ako ang Saklay (I Am the Crutches) Centre in San Antonio town. 
One evening on his way to the town, Father Abelardo drove by a dirt road where an unidentified male was found dead. A few weeks later, the dead man’s wife with her three children came to the centre, asking  for food and if possible, a job at the centre to be able to feed her children. 
“I think my encounter with that dead body on the road and my encounter with his wife were like personal calls of the Lord for me to do something,” recalls Father Abelardo. 
“I cannot just criticise the government or those who are involved in drugs. It was up to me to offer an alternative,” he said. 
That is what Father Abelardo did. The priest offered his background in counselling to help the regional police in establishing a drug rehabilitation facility aptly named Bahay Pag-asa (House of Hope) inside the PNP regional headquarters in Cabanatuan City. 
On 24 August 2016, the priest addressed the first batch of 30 drug addicts and peddlers who were admitted to the facility. With his assistance, a 30-day live-in programme covering exercise, prayers, Bible study and psycho-social processing was designed. 
“The problem of drugs cannot be solved by the police forces alone,” he reasons, noting,  “The police are not trained to do rehabilitation. They are trained to maintain law and order, to arrest and, if assaulted, to defend themselves. Rehabilitation and advising are not part of their training.” 
Counsellors from the Saklay Centre facilitate the assessment and processing of the offenders. If the assessment suggests that there is more need for psychological and psychiatric intervention, they are referred to specialists.
Meanwhile Father Abelardo opened the Saklay Centre as a facility for families who underwent trauma due to the drug addiction of a member of the family or due to the killing of their relatives in the alleged war on drugs. 
“The killings are causing fear and trauma to people. It is important that those affected get to know that there are places, centres, parishes and halls that will welcome them and will not judge them,” he explains. 
Father Abelardo also offered to train village health and social workers at the Saklay Centre to help other villages replicate what is being done at Bahay Pag-asa. Given the government’s limited facilities and manpower to address the surge of drug offenders, he said the Church is morally obliged to step up and offer help. 
“I believe the Church is more capable because we have space in our parishes. We have priests and nuns who have the basic training in counselling. And we have resourceful parishioners who are psychologists, doctors, teachers and counselors; we need to organise to help the needy,” he said 
Despite the divided public opinion on the morality and legality of Duterte’s campaign, Father Abelardo believes that citizens should contribute rather than criticise. 
“Even if the killing spree stops the drug crisis remains unsolved, so let us not stop at just saying ‘stop the killing.’ Let us do our part to solve the problem of drugs because, at the end of the day it is affecting our families, communities and the nation at large,” he said.
Explaining why the community should be involved in solving the problem of drugs, Father Abelardo said, “When someone dies, the whole community gathers to mourn and to pray for the dead; when someone is celebrating a wedding, the whole community gathers to celebrate; when there is a fiesta, the community gathers and celebrates. I think when someone is in crisis, the community should gather as well to help and not to judge.”
To date, Ako Ang Saklay, Inc. in San Antonio, Nueva Ecija, has helped over 300 drug dependents through a 30- to 45-day treatment and rehabilitaiton programme.
It may seem ironic, but the Philippines have a vice president who does not share the views of its president on the war on drugs. Vice president, Leni Robredo, came in person to the Saklay Centre to show appreciation of the initiative by the Church in treating and rehabilitating the drug dependents and awarded certificates to third batch of people who went through the programme. 
Father Abelardo feels that the Church has a greater role to play in resolving the menace. 
“We cannot remain indifferent,” he says. “We cannot just pray for them or attack the government. We have to show compassion and we have to offer an alternative.”

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