Philippine police prop up image with religious procession

No amount of prettifying can hide the fact that police are implicated in drug-related killings, rights group says
Philippine police prop up image with religious procession

Policemen hold a traditional religious procession called the 'Santacruzan' in the central Philippine city of Tacloban on May 29. (Photo by Roel Amazona)

Beset by allegations of playing an active role in hundreds, if not thousands, of drug-related killings, Philippine police have sought to boost their battered image by holding religious processions in honor of the Blessed Virgin.

In Tacloban city in the central Philippines, about 300 policemen staged a "Santacruzan" to promote what they called were the police's core values — "pro-country, pro-people, pro-environment, and pro-God."

At least 24 "police queens" from different areas in the Eastern Visayas region took part in the event on May 29.

The "Santacruzan," from the Spanish santa cruz, or holy cross, is a pageant supposedly to honor the finding of the "True Cross" by Helena of Constantinople.

In Santa Cruz, Laguna province, the annual event was also staged by police officers for the first time.

Laguna police chief Kirby John Kraft said it was a good way to engage with people as part of the police's "community relations" efforts.

A similar event was held in Camp Crame, the Philippine National Police headquarters in Manila, on May 31.

Father Ramil Costibolo of Palo Archdiocese in Leyte province said the processions "only show that our police are just like us, normal people, spiritual people."

"It's very normal among Filipino Catholics to have this activity to show our devotion to our beloved Mama Mary and at the same time celebrate our faith in Jesus Christ," said the priest.

Spanish friars introduced the pageant to the Philippines in the late 19th century.

Father Costibolo said he was "impressed" by the police initiative. "It's very nice," said the priest, adding that policemen "are ordinary people given extraordinary tasks in our community."

"We should understand them. They are seen to be tough but they have feelings. They are not robots. They have spiritual lives," said the priest.

The "Santacruzan" involves a parade of reynas (queens) and sagalas (maidens) with their male consorts at the end of May.

Alternately known in some parts of the country as "Flores de Maria," the procession pays homage to the Virgin Mary.

"Behind these queens are the virtues that they exemplify that should be practiced to contribute to the betterment of the individual and the entire organization and the community," said Kraft, the Laguna police chief.

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Nova Jane Barbosa, who was the police's Queen Helena in the Tacloban pageant, said the aim was to show to people the "true appearance" of the men and women in police uniform.

Father Joselito Borja, a police chaplain, said it was the first time that policemen in the region had staged the procession.

"People will know that there is God in our lives, that we are religious," said the priest.

Cristina Palabay of human rights group Karapatan expressed hope that the country's policemen will show more sincerity in efforts to address criminality and human rights abuses.

"It would be better if the [police] genuinely practice the progressive and meaningful teachings of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, that are love for the poor and genuine service to the downtrodden," said Palabay.

Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch said "no amount of prettifying ... can hide the fact that the Philippine National Police is implicated in the unlawful deaths of thousands of Filipinos in the so-called drug war."

"Instead of appropriating a religious and community activity, [the police] should stop the summary executions of drug suspects, bring the perpetrators of these killings to justice, and uphold the rule of law and due process," he said.

Conde said it is the only way they can improve their image in the eyes of the public, particularly the poor.

Human Rights Watch says at least 12,000 people, mostly from urban poor communities, have been killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war.

At least 2,555 of the killings have been attributed to the Philippine National Police.

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