Kin of Philippine drug war victims call for pope's help

Mothers of two victims hand in letters of appeal at Vatican, while play about slayings draws intense interest in Europe
Kin of Philippine drug war victims call for pope's help

Family members of those who have died in the Philippine drug war try to hand Pope Francis a letter of appeal for help during a papal audience in the Vatican on Oct. 9. (Photo supplied)

Braving a crowd of 50,000 in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Marissa Lazaro and Katherine Bautista squeezed their way through to successfully hand over letters to aides of Pope Francis on Oct. 9.

The grieving mothers of young men and women slain in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war said the experience filled their hearts with hope.

"I am confident he will read our letters," said Lazaro, whose son Christopher was killed by police officers in 2017.

Lazaro’s letter described her grief and asked the pontiff to pray for her son and all those who have died in the Philippine government's war against illegal drugs.

She also sought prayers for all the mothers and fathers, widows and children of the mostly poor victims of the bloody crackdown on suspected drug users and peddlers.

"It is really hard to accept that I lost my son because of the fake war on drugs in our country," she said in her handwritten letter.

"We’re Filipinos, our sons died in the drug war," she told strangers, who opened a space for her to be able to get near the pope.

Lazaro and Bautista are members of the Rise Up for Life and Rights group, which is fighting for justice for families willing to pursue legal cases and campaigns against so-called extrajudicial killings.

They are also part of a delegation from "Tao Po," a theater presentation on the war on drugs that is making a six-city tour in Europe.

Also at the Vatican were Filipino actress Mae Paner, also known as Juana Change, and Redemptorist brother and photojournalist Ciriaco Santiago III, who curated the exhibit "Nanlaba" (laundered tales) for the Nightcrawlers group and Rise Up.

"We were part of the sea of humanity," Paner said in an interview conducted via social media. "[Lazaro and Bautista] were really determined to get to the front … and were able to have their letters received by the pope’s aides." 

Lazaro described a "feeling of grace" when she locked eyes with the pontiff.

"I am so happy because when his assistant took my letter, I already felt my appeal for justice would reach him," she said in Filipino. "We hope he gets to personally listen to our stories one day."

Pope Francis has been invited to return to the Philippines in 2021 for the 500th anniversary celebration of the arrival of the Catholic faith in the country. He capped his 2015 visit with a Mass in Manila that drew about six million people.

Bautista said she cried over the encounter with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

"It’s a different level of happiness. I kept on calling out, 'Please get this!," referring to her letter. "When [an aide] reached out for my letter, my heart filled with hope, not just for my stepson but for all other victims of the merciless killings in our country." 

Paner said the experience bolstered their courage for the Oct. 10 performance of "Tao Po" in Rome, which has one of the largest Filipino populations in Europe.

The play, which is followed by an interactive session with the audience, will be held at the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite Piazza, four stations away from the Vatican.

Rise Up has received word of keen interest in the play from Catholic clergy and religious groups from various Christian denominations.

Paner said even some Duterte supporters have reached out to express interest in the play that is based on real-life actors from all sides of the drug war.

"I am grateful," the actress said. "It is the duty of truth tellers to reach out to everyone and try to reason with different groups, even those who have spread messages of hate."

The play was performed in Amsterdam recently to a packed audience who gave a standing ovation. Paner described the experience as "an encounter of hope."

She said the son of an illegal drug dealer even confessed to supporting summary executions in the drug war "but the play made him reflect on the importance of a second chance."

"A 16-year-old daughter of a man who has languished in jail for years now because of drugs broke down in tears," said Paner, adding that the play made the girl realize "that her father also deserves a second chance."

The Philippine drug war has an official death toll of about 6,000, but triple that number have died in what police claim are vigilante killings.

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