Updated: May 31, 2019 09:04 AM GMT
Children offer flowers to the Virgin Mary during a 'Flores de Mayo' activity in the central Philippine province of Cebu. (Photo by Victor Kintanar)
Philippine authorities are doing their best to win the hearts and minds of people amid allegations that policemen have been behind many of the thousands of drug-related killings that have stained the country’s image over the last few years.In the central Philippines, police have been hosting a traditional "Flores de Mayo," literally "Flowers of May," celebration in honor of the Virgin Mary at a police camp.The "Flores de Mayo" is a festival held in May. It is one of the many Filipino devotions to the Virgin Mary that culminates with a ritualistic pageant on the last day of the month. The police officers in the town of Palo, in Leyte province seemed to be succeeding in impressing young Catholics at their festival."I feel safer here," said 13-year-old Marie Pathyma Ilanan. She even brought her younger siblings to the police camp’s chapel to attend the celebration."I like it here because they also have a nice playground," said Beitina Therese Maceda, 11, who joined about 250 other children in the activity.She said she "learned a lot about religion and children’s rights" from the police officers."I want to be closer to Mama Mary, and I was enlightened here through the Bible class," said the young girl.Police Lt. Col. Bella Rentuaya, the regional police spokeswoman, said they did their best to teach children how to become "God-loving, responsible human beings, and disciplined citizens.""Aside from teaching them how to pray, we also provide lessons on rights awareness and health issues," said Rentuaya.
Police officers play host to a 'Flores de Mayo' activity at a police base in the central Philippine town of Palo, Leyte province. (Photo by Ronald Reyes)
According to government figures, at least 4,948 suspected drug users and dealers have died during police operations from July 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2018.Human rights groups, however, say the figures do not include the thousands of others killed by unidentified gunmen that were classified by police as "homicides under investigation."Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch told ucanews.com that, "no amount of [public relations] will improve the police’s image among the public unless they stop violating people’s basic rights.""The [police] have no business conducting a 'Flores de Mayo,'" said Conde, adding that, "it is a religious celebration.""It is unconscionable that the [Philippine National Police] can hijack the 'Flores de Mayo' for propaganda purposes," he said.Police officer Gapul, however, said they were just trying to reach out to the community "to win back what was lost in the way people look at us."She said holding the "Flores de Mayo" with the children "brings out the soft side of the police.""We are also human … we have hearts.... We also believe that Jesus Christ is the real authority. We are led by God," said Gapul.Michelle, who asked not to use her real name, said she sent her children to the camp activity despite her husband having been arrested by the police for using drugs."I look at policemen as good people," said the 35-year-old, adding that she is "happy because the [police officers] give snacks to the children."The "Flores de Mayo" is believed to have started in the Philippines in the mid-1800s when Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary a doctrine of the Catholic Church.