28 January 2021

The Guardian: “The Catholic rebels resisting the Philippines’ deadly war on drugs”

In the Philippines, where four in five citizens identify as Catholic, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against the drug war. The church is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 election campaign as a referendum on the legitimacy of the church, Duterte has forced religious leaders to choose between coveted political capital and their moral mandates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country’s most influential church authority, has been criticised by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to Duterte. Such a stance, they argue, seems blind to the country’s suffering and risks degrading the moral integrity of the church. Meanwhile, Jun and a small crop of the church opposition have reoriented their lives around a mission to document the drug war while helping to seek accountability for those carrying it out.

As antagonistic as his rhetoric was during the campaign, Duterte’s hostility toward the church has only intensified during his presidency. As if testing the limits of his own blasphemy, Duterte has aimed each curse at a Catholic dogma more sacred than the last. Addressing Filipinos during a 2016 speech in Laos, he predicted a future in which the Catholic church would be irrelevant and beckoned his countrymen into an “iglesia ni Duterte” (a “church of Duterte”). On All Saints’ day last year, he mocked Catholic saints as hypocrites and loons, and proposed himself as a proper object of worship: “Santo Rodrigo”. Last October, he aimed even higher than the pope, calling God himself a “son of a whore” and asking: “Who is this stupid God?”

Adam Willis

While Donald Trump has been voted out of office, other authoritarian leaders are very much still in power. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is even enjoying record levels of popularity while conducting a deadly campaign of extrajudicial killings under the pretext of the war on drugs. In this climate of constant fear, the church treads a narrow path between the moral responsibility of condemning the murders and refraining from provoking an unpredictable President who is openly hostile to the Catholic faith. His campaign of public oppressions and overt attacks against the most respected institution in the country serve a similar purpose to Trump’s constant lying: to establish himself as the single source of truth, authority and salvation.

The body of a suspected drug dealer lies in a Manila street
The body of a suspected drug dealer lies in a Manila street, the victim of a vigilante-style execution. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty

Recently, Ambo’s public dissent prompted a counter from Duterte: the president accused the bishop of stealing from the offering plate and dealing in drugs himself. Duterte threatened to personally “decapitate” Ambo, who was then deluged with death threats from other sources. Through such direct attacks, Duterte has chipped away at a veneration of the church half a millennium in the making. Priests themselves no longer know their standing in the culture. As Father Albert Alejo, a member of the Catholic resistance, put it to me, the crisis of the drug war transcends the death toll. In the end, they are not just killing bodies, he said, they are killing our logic and they are killing our moral foundations.

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