As the death toll of drug related killings continues to rise following the new administration’s war on drugs, some Church leaders have come forward offering better solutions. Filipino priests and bishops are opening parish doors to drug offenders to provide immediate and long-term rehabilitation.
Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, was the first bishop to publicly welcome the drug offenders within the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro in Southern Philippines. The bishop launched an archdiocesan program to provide immediate and long-term rehabilitation and intervention after at least 4,000 offenders surrendered to the authorities. The program kicked off last August with a full day of recollection, penitential service, confession and procession to Saint Agustine Metropolitan Cathedral, where a ceremonial opening of the ‘Door of Mercy’ was held to symbolically welcome the repentant lawbreakers.
“As a Church, we cannot remain indifferent to this reality; – Archbishop Ledesma pointed out – pastoral charity urges us to concretize this challenge. Communities of faith are called to become ‘islands of mercy’ and ‘field hospitals,’ in the words of Pope Francis… [Thus] I am asking all pastors in the Archdiocese to open available facilities such as churches and parish halls for community-based recovery programs. I also enjoin all ministries, religious organizations and lay ecclesial movements to be actively involved in these collaborative efforts to accompany responders or recoverers, together with government agencies, NGOs and private institutions”.
In Metro Manila, Novaliches Bishop Antonio Tobias was the first bishop in the capital to initiate Church-assisted drug rehabilitation program for the faithful. With Tobias’ backing, Argentine priest Fr. Luciano Feloni launched a community-based healing program for drug offenders at the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, a community in Caloocan City that saw three to five individuals get killed every week since Duterte declared the intensified war on drugs.
The parish-led community-based healing program covers spiritual and psycho-social intervention with livelihood assistance, apart from basic family and parenting counseling. The parish likewise provides detoxification and rehabilitation for offenders. “There is no real program being offered by the government”, Feloni stressed. “Once you surrender, you go home and it’s assumed you’ll stop being an addict. [But] you cannot stop addiction just by fear. It’s a sickness, and you need psycho-social intervention to cure it. If killing isn’t a solution, neither is surrender. It’s just the beginning. Unless you offer something, people cannot really change”.
Just recently, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle followed suit with the establishment of the ‘Restorative Justice Ministry of the Archdiocese of Manila’. Cardinal Tagle said the archdiocese is opening its doors to those battling drug addiction to help them recover.
“We welcome you with all our hearts and we pray that your humility to surrender and the decision to have a new life be blessed by God”, the archbishop said. “We are here for you. Let us not waste life. It is important and it has to be protected and nurtured”.
Meanwhile in Northern Philippines, particularly in the province of Nueva Ecija, Father. Arnold M. Abelardo, took the mission of protecting people in crisis personally. The Claretian missionary, regularly goes to the province for his practicum work at the Ako ang Saklay (‘I am the Crutches’) Center in San Antonio town.
But one evening on his way to the town, Abelardo drove by a dirt road where an unidentified male was found dead. A few weeks later, Abelardo met the man’s wife, who asked for a job at the Center to be able to feed her three children. “I think my encounter with that dead body on the road and my encounter with his wife was like a personal call of the Lord for me to do something, that I cannot just criticise the government or those who are involved in drugs. I have to show and offer an alternative”, he said.
And Abelardo did. The priest offered his background in counseling and training as a priest to help the regional police establish a drug rehabilitation facility aptly named Bahay Pag-asa (House of Hope) inside the PNP regional headquarters in Cabanatuan City.
“The problem of drugs cannot be solved by the police forces alone”, Father Abelardo stressed. “The police are not trained to do rehabilitation, they are trained to maintain order and to arrest. Rehabilitation and advising are not part of their training”.
At the same time, father Abelardo also opened the Saklay Center as a facility for families who underwent trauma due to drug addiction or due to the killing of their relatives because of the government’s anti-narcotics war. “The killings are causing fear and trauma to people”, he said. “At the same time, those who are affected should know that there are places, centers, parishes and halls that will welcome them and will not judge them”.
Given the government’s limited facilities and manpower to address the surge of drug offenders, Abelardo said the Church is morally obliged to step up and offer help. “I believe the Church is more capable because we have space in our parishes. We have priests and nuns who can give advice. And we have parishioners, who are psychologists, doctors, teachers and counselors, we can organize to help”, he explained.
“Drug addiction has to be addressed by the whole community. When someone dies, the whole community gathers to mourn and to pray for the dead. I think when someone is in crisis, the community should gather as well to help and not to judge”, the priest said.
The PNP claimed that the government’s anti-narcotics campaign has cut 70 percent of the illegal drugs supply in the country, but officials offered no concrete evidence to back up their assertions. What is only certain is that the killings, whether warranted or not, will continue until Duterte has punished the last drug lord or street peddler in a country of 101 million people.
In the same time the bishops have strongly condemned President Duterte’s war on drug as a “reign of terror”. They made the intervention in a letter read in the parishes during the Sunday Masses Feb. 5.
It was read: “The life of every person comes from God. It is he who gives it, and it is he alone who can take it back. Not even the government has a right to kill life because it is only God’s steward and not the owner of life.” Silence in the face of evil means becoming an accomplice to it, they warned. “If we neglect the 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.”
The bishops letter said: “We in the Church will continue to speak against evil even as we acknowledge and repent of our own shortcomings. We will do this even if it will bring persecution upon us because we are all brothers and sisters responsible for each other. We will help drug addicts so that they may be healed and start a new life.” The bishops said they will stand with the families of those who have been killed.
Duterte’s response to the pastoral letter was adamant. “You Catholics, if you believe in your priests and bishops, you stay with them,” the president said. “If you want to go to heaven, then go to them. Now, if you want to end drugs … I will go to hell, come join me.”