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Some Of LA's Filipino Catholics Call For An End To Duterte's Brutal Drug War

Filipino American activists call for an end to Rodrigo Duterte's drug war at the 'People's State of the Nation Address' in Los Angeles in July (Aaron Schrank)
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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs is facing international scrutiny.

A United Nations report on extrajudicial killings is due out next year. The International Criminal Court is wrapping up its preliminary investigation into crimes against humanity. Concerns are also coming from Catholic leaders, both in the Philippines, where 8 in 10 people are Catholic, and here in the Los Angeles area, home to the largest Filipino immigrant community in the United States.


In his fourth annual "State of the Nation" address this summer, President Duterte defended his war on drugs and urged a joint session of the Philippines Congress to take it further: "I respectfully request Congress to reinstate the death penalty for heinous crimes related to drugs," Duterte said, to applause.

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The same day, the sidewalk outside L.A.'s Philipine Consulate in Koreatown was flooded with protestors calling for an end to Duterte's human rights abuses and urging U.S. Congress to cut military aid to the Duterte regime. The event, called the "People's State of the Nation," was organized by left-leaning Filipino American groups the Malaya Movement and Bayan-USA.

Duterte's double-down on the drug war is especially concerning for many Catholics, who were well-represented in the protest crowd. The Church opposes capital punishment.

"We pray that we share equal dignity with suffering Filipinos, victims of extrajudicial killings, human rights violations," said Father Tony Abuan, beginning the demonstration in prayer.

Fr. Tony Abuan, a priest at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Moreno Valley, opened the protest in prayer. (Aaron Schrank )

Abuan is a priest at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Moreno Valley. He moved here from the Philippines 20 years ago. He's the chair of the Inland Empire's chapter of a group called the National Ecumenical Forum for Filipino Concerns.

"The role of the Church is really to give sight to the people, said Abuan. "To help them see what justice is about. As church people, we have to proclaim these truths."

The group brings Filipino American Christians together to be a voice for people back home, said Naida Cantro, a fellow Catholic at the protest.

"Because in the Philippines, when you criticize the government, you get killed," Castro said. "And that's why there are many priests who have been killed, and there are bishops who are being criticized and threatened."

Critics say that since taking office in 2016, President Duterte has not only overseen the murders of drug users and dealers, but used the campaign as a pretense for attacking his political opposition.

Outside the consulate, demonstrators read the names of people killed since Duterte's anti-drug crusade began, including 3-year-old Myca Ulpina, who was shot during a police raid targeting her dad.

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According to official figures from Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the death toll in the drug war, "Oplan Tokhang" as it's known in the Philippines, is about 5,500. The President's opposition and international human rights groups argue it's much higher: between 20,000 and 30,000 people.

Members of the National Ecumenical Forum for Filipino Concerns-Inland Empire gathered in LA to protest President Duterte's 'State of the Nation' address. (Aaron Schrank )

"What he's doing doesn't align with the Catholic faith," said Ariana Rodriguez, member of the Filipina women's rights group Gabriela LA and a lifelong Catholic. "It's very easy for me personally to organize and feel confident that my church is behind me."

Rodriguez is a second generation Filipino American. The Catholic Church might be behind her, she said, but not her Catholic parents.

"It's a difficult conversation," Rodriguez said. "We argue from both sides of the spectrum of we like Duterte, or we don't like Duterte. But we both argue, 'Oh, my faith compels me to say this. So it can be hard."


Since taking office, Duterte has ratcheted up rhetoric against the Catholic Church and personal attacks against its leaders, even charging some bishops with sedition.

But while many Catholic leaders in the majority-Catholic Philippines condemn the drug killings, some are neutral or even supportive.

In this photo taken on November 19, 2019, Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte talks during a late-night press conference at Malacanang Palace in Manila. (TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

Jayeel Cornelio is a sociologist of religion at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. He's researched how church leaders in the Payatas district of Quezon City frame the drug war from the pulpit.

"For the majority of religious leaders, the war on drugs was a necessary intervention, in fact divinely-ordained, to cleanse Philippines society of its social ills," Cornelio said.

Some of those he spoke with even compared Duterte to the biblical King Josiah, who leads a campaign against idol worship in the Old Testament.

The Philippines is one of the most Catholic countries in the world. A decade ago, there were about 76 million Catholics living there, as many as in the U.S. Eighty-one percent of Filipinos identify as Catholic, compared to 65 percent of Filipino Americans.

Catholic Church leaders have long condemned capital punishment and advocated for the protection of human rights. At the same time, 78 percent of Filipinos say they'resatisfied with Duterte's performance. Despite its brutality, many Filipinos feel like the drug war is working. The criminals are dead. Cornelio says when religious leaders talk about human rights, it tends to go over people's heads.

"It's not the moral logic at work here," Cornelio said. "The moral logic at work is justice."

For Filipinos, drugs and drug crime are an everyday problem that politicians weren't really talking about before Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City in the southern island of Mindanao.

"And here comes Mayor Duterte, promising to rid the country of the drug problem in 3 to 6 months," said Fr. Guillrey Anthony Andal, a priest from the Philippines studying at Loyola Marymount University. "No matter how illogical that is, in terms of policy, and the practical matters, you can imagine how frustrated Filipinos might latch on to this as if it's the gospel truth.

Many even devoutly Catholic Filipinos don't mind when the populist leader calls out the Catholic Church for hypocrisy, Andal said. The Church, while popular, has a credibility problem, especially around the issue of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Duterte himself has claimed he was abused by a priest when attending the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao High Schoolin the late 1950s. The alleged perpetrator, Mark Falvey, served for years at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood. In 2007, the Jesuit order agreed to pay $16 million to settle claims that Falvey sexually abused at least nine children there between 1959 and his death in 1975. Falvey remains on the Jesuits' list of credibly accused priests.

Andal says these claims only add to Duterte's populist power.

"He's very relatable, and to match that, through social media, his supporters were able to capture the imagination of Filipinos and build a new myth about him and his leadership in Davao City," said Andal. "He has so much social capital. People just believe whatever he says."

Filipino Catholics gathered at Our Lady of the Angeles Cathedral in September 2019 for the feast of the Virgen de los Remedios, the patron saint of the Philippine province of Pampanga. (Aaron Schrank )


In September, local Filipino Catholics filled Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown L.A. to celebrate the feast of the Virgen de los Remedios, or Virgin of Remedies, the patron saint of the Phillippine province of Pampanga, which sits northwest of Manila.

This particular image of Mary was introduced in the Philippine province as an anti-communist symbol years ago. Pope Pius XII crowned the holy image in the 1950s. Filipinos in L.A. mark the anniversary with this special mass, even reenacting the coronation.

A shrine to Virgen de los Remedios at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles. (Aaron Schrank )

Most of the congregants wear white. Some have elaborate banners and statues. Father Rodel Balagtas, a priest who grew up in Pampanga and is now pastor at the majority Filipino Incarnation Catholic Church in Glendale, gives the homily.

"We celebrate this mass to ask for the intercession of the Mother of God to bring remedy to all ills of division, hatred, corruption, drugs and poverty in the Philippines and to pray for a mutual understanding and respect between the state and the Church," Balagtas said.

Phillippine Catholic bishops last summer had asked Catholics worldwide to pray for Church leaders facing persecution under Duterte's drug war.

After his sermon, Balagtas tells me the drug war is a touchy subject. Many in the pews support Duterte. Some don't. Nobody really talks about it.

"Especially in the Filipino American community here in Los Angeles, there has to be some type of dialogue among all of us," said Balagtas. "And I don't see that much. They're kind of leery of talking anything about the government. There's fear of being condemned."

A banner for the Virgin of Remedies on display at an annual mass at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. (Aaron Schrank )

Balagtas sees a disconnect for most Filipino Catholics. He says they're very strong on the devotional level, but less interested in Catholic social teaching.

"I see a real sort of a split-level Christianity," Balagtas said. "You come to church, but then you live it or believe it differently in terms of all of these moral issues, you know? How can you be Catholic and not uphold basic human rights?"

As Duterte's drug war continues, it's a question more Filipinos and Filipino Americans will have to grapple with.