Tribal people from the northern Philippines play music at the 'Walk for Like' in Manila on Feb. 18. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Thousands of Catholics gathered in the Philippine capital Manila in a "show of force" against "anti-life" issues, including drug-related killings, the proposed revival of capital punishment, and abortion.
An estimated 20,000 people gathered on Feb. 18 and carried placards as they walked around Rizal Park to pray the rosary and sang religious songs in a prayer rally dubbed the "Walk for Life."
Organizers said the huge crowd was "unexpected" because of the short time for preparation and of the early morning schedule.
"This only shows that they want to express themselves," said Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on the Laity of the Philippine bishops' conference.
"[The people] really want to convey to the government that the people are standing up for life and that they are against the death penalty and extrajudicial killings. I hope they listen to the people," said Bishop Pabillo.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the bishops' conference, clarified that the activity was "not a protest but rather standing up for the holiness of life of every human being."
"This 'Walk for Life' is a walk for God," said the prelate in a speech before the start of the event. He said the activity "does not aim to defend drug addicts nor the killers."
"Criminals have to be arrested, face charges, be convicted, and imprisoned in order to correct his or her wrongdoing. His crime must be proven in a court of law, not through the rule of the bullet," Archbishop Villegas said.
At least 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers have died either in police operations or by vigilante-style killings that have been linked to the government's seven-month old campaign against narcotics.
"We are gathered here for those who cannot walk anymore because of our sins against them," Archbishop Villegas said. "They cannot walk because they were killed and we were too afraid of getting implicated," he added.
He said many Filipinos "cannot walk because they are afraid that they might be gunned down next."
Priests, nuns, and seminarians join the 'Walk for Life' prayer rally to call for an end to drug-related killings and the proposed revival of capital punishment, in Manila on Feb. 18. (Photo by Maria Tan)
Freedom of expression
Following the prayer rally, the presidential palace issued a statement saying President Rodrigo Duterte upholds the people's "freedom of expression."
"The president allows the freedom of expression and this is one of them. That's part of the democratic dynamic," said Ernesto Abella, the president's spokesman.
Duterte and Philippine church leaders have repeatedly clashed over the government's intensified campaign against illegal drugs and the proposal by several legislators to bring back capital punishment.
The president said the country's bishops have no moral ascendancy to speak about the "sanctity of life" because of alleged corruption and sex abuses committed by some of members of the clergy.
Archbishop Villegas, however, urged Catholics not to be afraid. "Fear and intimidation is already spreading. We are threatened with being killed. We are threatened and we become afraid," said the prelate.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who joined the rally, called on Catholics to use non-violent means to address what he described as the "growing culture of violence" in the country.
He said the "Walk for Life" aimed to "save lives, such as pregnant women and the unborn child, those who are hungry," and young people who must be freed from vices like illegal drugs, abuse, prostitution, pornography and gambling.
"Do not stop walking for life, make walking for life a daily thing," he said, adding that "nothing will happen if we won't walk everyday for life."
Bishop Pablo David of Kalookan said the prayer rally was also meant to campaign against environmental abuse, an end to war in the southern Philippines, and for the resumption of peace talks between the government and the communist rebels.
"Yes to life means yes to peace initiatives, yes to environmental protection, yes to the campaign to rehabilitate drug addicts," he said.
The "Walk for Life" was organized by the Council of the Laity of the Philippines and endorsed by the bishops' conference.