Catholic bishops have called on people to remain steadfast amid a wave of killings and other violence gripping the Philippines. About 22,000 suspected drug users and peddlers have died in the government's anti-narcotics war in the past two years, according to rights groups. In recent weeks, local government officials have become the target of a series of assassinations while three Catholic priests have been killed in the last six months. "When there’s so much hatred and violence, when murder has become an almost daily occurrence ... we admonish the faithful to remain steadfast," read a pastoral statement. The exhortation was made at the end of the prelates' biannual plenary meeting in Manila on July 9. The bishops urged people "to actively work for peace" especially at a time "when people have gotten so used to exchanging insults on social media." Without naming President Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly ranted against church leaders
, the bishops urged Catholics to pray for "those who have blasphemed God's Holy Name." They then called for three days of prayer and penance starting July 16 for those who "slander and bear false witness, and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality in our country." Blood of martyrs
The bishops' pastoral statement titled "Rejoice and Be Glad!" condemned the killings of Catholic priests
Marcelito Paez, Mark Ventura, and Richmond Nilo in recent months, but said it was not something new. "What is new about priests being murdered for witnessing to Christ? What is new about modern prophets being silenced by the treacherous bullets of assassins?" read the bishops' letter. The prelates lamented that some people who call themselves Christians "see nothing wrong about the killings, who just laugh when our God is blasphemed, and who take part in passing on fake news." "There will always be those among us who profess the faith in Christ but are so easily seduced by the empty promises of Satan," said the bishops. On the killings of drug suspects, the bishops asked: "Do we not feel the sufferings of drug addicts who are labeled 'non-humans,' and are stigmatized as criminals when their names end up on the dreaded 'drug watch lists'?"
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"Yes, we are aware of the sufferings of those who have been victimized by substance abusers, but can we not see them also as sick people who are struggling with a disease?" Not an indictment of Duterte
Archbishop Romulo of Valles of Davao, president of the bishops' conference, said the statement was "not an indictment" of Duterte’s administration. "It's not our intent, the tone is we are speaking as shepherds, as bishops," said Bishop Valles who is a personal friend of Duterte. The bishops denied reports that they are involved in moves to destabilize the government
. "The church respects the political authority, especially of democratically-elected government officials, as long as they do not contradict the basic spiritual and moral principles we hold dear, such as respect for the sacredness of life, the integrity of creation, and the inherent dignity of the human person," read the prelates' statement. "We are not political leaders, and certainly not political opponents of government," said the bishops.