MANILA - As the bells of Baclaran Church rang out to herald the Simbang Gabi Mass early Sunday, parishioners stumbled upon an unexpected sight: mounted outside the shrine were chilling photos of the killings linked to government's war on drugs. Poster-sized and illuminated, the photos gave passersby glimpses of the weeping families of drug suspects killed in police operations, blood-splattered crime scenes, and suspected victims of vigilante attacks with ropes and packing tape binding their bodies. The photos were captured by journalists who have covered the nightly killings in Metro Manila since President Rodrigo Duterte launched his anti-narcotics crackdown last May. In a statement, the photojournalists lamented that documenting the killings is "more difficult than holding a gun in war time." "Sa isang putok ng baril, madalas nagsisimula o natatapos ang isang giyera. Ngunit sa isang pitik ng camera nabubuksan lahat ng kuwento ng karimlang dulot ng giyera -- mga katawang nagkalat na walang buhay sa ekinita't bangketa, ang lansa ng pinaghalong dugong at aspalto sa halimuyak ng madaling-araw, ang dalamhati ng nawalan ng kabiyak, ang pagkabalisa ng mga anak na naulila't naagawan ng kinabukasan," they said. (With a gunshot, a war typically starts or ends. But with the single click of a camera, the horrors of war are exposed -- the lifeless bodies littering streets and pavements, the odors of blood and asphalt mixing with the scent of daybreak, the grief of one who has lost a spouse, the anxiety of orphaned children whose futures were stolen.) Speaking to ABS-CBN News, Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz confirmed the project was spearheaded by the Roman Catholic Church to condemn the killings. "Sampu lang naman ang utos ng Diyos eh. Isa nga po dyan ay huwag kang papatay. Ang estado ay hindi naman siya ang nagbigay ng buhay ng tao. Anong karapatan niyang kunin ito?" he said. (God gave only 10 commandments. Among those is, 'Thou shall not kill.' Life did not come from the state, what right does it have to take this?)
Churchgoers, meanwhile, gave divided opinion on the exhibit. Some expressed fear over the rampant killings. Among them was Maribeth Adolfo who shared: "Natatakot ako para sa mga anak ko. Palagi silang nasa labas." (I fear for my children. They're are always outside our house.) "Nakakatakot. Hindi maganda itong pagbabago," added Fely Catalian, another attendee of the pre-dawn Mass. (It's frightening. This is not a good change.) Others, on the other hand, were in favor of mounting similar exhibits in other public places. "Para matakot ang mga durugista (so that drug users would be frightened)," said parishioner Jun Jun Vallejo.
There were also some who lamented the mounting body count but maintained support for the government's fight against crime. Asked about his what he feels towards the killings, church-goer Gener Agustin said, "50/50 pero maganda ang programa ng gobyerno." Over 2,600 suspected drug users and peddlers have been killed in police efforts and vigilante attacks between May 10 and December 13, an independent tally by ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group shows. Duterte, who has blasted critics of the drug war in curse-laden language, reiterated Saturday that the crackdown will last while he is in office. READ: Duterte defends killing of drug pushers, says they deserve death Priests from the Catholic Church, an institution that helped oust two of the country's leaders in the past, have been divided on the issue. Opposing the drug war "in some locations becomes a dangerous job," said Father Luciano Felloni, a priest in Caloocan. "There is a lot of fear because the way people have been killed is vigilante-style so anyone could become a target ... There is no way of protecting yourself," he said.
Another priest, who like several others asked for anonymity because of possible reprisals, agreed it was risky to question the killings openly. Dozens of drug addicts and pushers are being killed every day, but anyone who criticizes Duterte's campaign could suffer a similar fate, he said. Some priests, meanwhile, support Duterte's war on drugs. "People are dying, yes, but on the other hand, millions of people are being helped," said Father Joel Tabora, a priest in Davao, where Duterte was mayor for 22 years. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella earlier said the Church was free to make statements, and there was no cause "to even imply" that anyone in the clergy would be targeted. However, Abella added: "The Church needs to consider that recent surveys show the people trust and appreciate the President's efforts and it would do well to take heed and not presume that the people share their belief system." "We expect them to be reasonable and considered."