Philippine bishops have for the first time spoken out in one voice against the government's deadly war on drugs in a statement read out in churches nationwide on Feb. 5. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines rallied Filipino Catholics against a wave of killings over the past seven months blamed on the government's "total war" on drugs.
"If we consent or allow the killing of suspected drug addicts, we shall also be responsible for their deaths," said the bishops in a pastoral statement read in churches nationwide on Feb. 5.
"The traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome," the church leaders said. "But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers," they added.
It was the first time the country's Catholic Church leaders have spoken as one against the killings. The statement was approved during the prelates' bi-annual plenary assembly Jan. 28-30.
An estimated 7,000 people have been killed since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte launched a war against illegal drugs when he came to power in June last year.
The bishops stood firm against the killings during police anti-drug operations and by supposed vigilante groups targeting drug users and dealers, saying, "not even the government has the right to kill life."
"We in the church will continue to speak against evil even as we acknowledge and repent of our own shortcomings," read the statement signed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas, head of the bishops' conference.
Duterte has repeatedly lambasted church leaders who criticized his campaign against narcotics, accusing the bishops of hypocrisy and calling them "sons of bitches" and "child molesters."
But the prelates said they would continue to oppose the killings "even if it brings persecution upon us because we are all brothers and sisters responsible for each other."
"To consent and to keep silent in front of evil is to be an accomplice to it," read the bishops' pastoral statement. They said Catholics should voice similar objections.
"If we neglect drug addicts and pushers, we have become part of the drug problem. If we consent or allow the killing of suspected drug addicts, we shall also be responsible for their deaths," said the bishops.
"To push drugs is a grave sin," the church leaders said "we cannot correct a wrong by doing another wrong."
The bishops stressed that while they were one with the Filipino people who want change, that change "must be guided by truth and justice."
The bishops emphasized the need to address widespread poverty, which they identified as the root of criminality and the drug problem, by providing work and sufficient wages to workers.
They also stressed the need to strengthen families and to root out rogue policemen and corrupt judges.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the Philippine bishops' conference, issues the pastoral statement on the wave of drug related killings on Feb. 5. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Reacting to the statement, Duterte's allies slammed the bishops, calling them "sinners" who have "no moral ascendancy to judge what is right and wrong."
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said the bishops are "simply a bunch of shameless hypocrites."
Ernesto Abella, Duterte's spokesman, said the time and efforts of church leaders "might be put to better use in practical catechetics that build strong moral character."
"The officials of the [bishops' conference] are apparently out of touch with the sentiments of the faithful who overwhelmingly support the changes in the Philippines," said Abella.
The bishops, however, found allies among senators who said there was nothing wrong with the church leaders' statement.
"It's democracy at work," said Senator Panfilo Lacson, adding that it is good that various sectors are coming out to criticize the government instead of cowering in fear.
"It is a wake-up call for the government," he said.
Senator Leila de Lima, a staunch critic of Duterte, described the president as a "fake idol and false messiah" who thinks he can keep the "moral and spiritual fiber" of the nation intact while despising the values of life, liberty, and social justice.
"For the palace to say that reminding our people of these basic Filipino values is being out of touch with reality is like saying that our countrymen no longer value life, liberty, and social justice," said De Lima.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said the government's anti-narcotics war should not cost the lives of its people.
"Killing, whether by criminals or the state, is never the solution to the country's continuing problems of poverty, high prices, and insufficient jobs," he said.
He also called on the government to give justice to the families of those killed.
"Our government must uphold its responsibility to protect our people, to promote their welfare, and make them safe," he said.
Several bishops said they would not stop speaking against issues involving morality.
"If it's a matter of morality we will speak. Even if they call us hypocrites that's okay," said Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez of Marbel.
The bishops' pastoral statement was released days after Amnesty International issued a report titled "If You are Poor You are Killed: Extrajudicial Executions in the Philippines."
The human rights organization accused Philippine authorities of enlisting killers to go after suspected drug users and dealers.