07 September 2016, The Tablet

Catholic priest persuading drug users to hand themselves in says church is 'on same page' as Philippines police

If after six months he is 'still alive' other parishes could be encouraged to join new scheme to help addicts

As the body count rises in the Philippines' war on drugs, a Catholic priest is trying to create a space where healing takes precedence over killing. 

On 1 September, Father Luciano Feloni, an Argentine priest who is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Caloocan City, on the edge of Manila kept a close watch as 20 drug users from his parish surrendered to local police. Another 20 were expected to surrender under a programme Feloni has dubbed "Healing, not killing".

The voluntary surrender of these groups - which Father Feloni orchestrated in coordination with the police and local political leaders - comes as the Philippines under new President Rodrigo Duterte is waging a war on drug users and dealers that has resulted in at least 1,300 deaths, according to official figures released by police authorities in the last two weeks. Feloni said that since Duterte's election between three and five people in his parish have been killed every week. One victim was shot in front of the parish church immediately following Mass.

"I know the numbers because we said the funeral Mass for them. Almost all were killed in the same way: A motorcycle would come up with two people, and one would get off and pull a gun and kill the person, then they would ride away. No one ever gets caught or convicted," Feloni told Catholic News Service. Feloni's parish and the local government are currently accompanying the newly surrendered drug users through a process of detoxification and rehabilitation, as well as providing food in exchange for work in the neighbourhood. The priest said he supports Duterte's campaign against drugs.

"It has to be crystal clear that the church is 100 per cent behind the president on this campaign against drugs, because drugs are destroying the country. I come from Latin America and I know how it looks when drugs destroy a place. But at the same time, we are against the killings," he said.

In response to the unprecedented wave of killings, tens of thousands of drug users - mostly addicts of shabu, a local form of methamphetamine - have turned themselves in to police, hoping that coming clean to the authorities will cut the risk of being targeted by gunmen on the streets. As Feloni watched the killings ravage his parish, he talked with his parish council, which agreed that something had to be done. The council president had lost his brother, a police officer, in a shootout with drug pushers.

"We agreed that killing is not a solution to our problems," Feloni said. "And we asked what we could do. The church has been denouncing the killings and getting feedback from the people that we are meddling. They say we're talking and talking and talking and doing nothing. The message that we were totally in favour of the campaign against drugs wasn't coming across properly. So we began to ask what we could do proactively, more than just stating that we're against the killings."

Working with local government officials and the police, Feloni garnered commitments to get help for users who were willing to turn themselves in. "There is no real programme being offered by the government. Once you surrender, you go home and it's assumed you'll stop being an addict. That is not real thinking. You cannot stop addiction just by fear. It's a sickness, and you need psychosocial intervention to cure it," he said. "If killing isn't a solution, neither is surrender. It's just the beginning. Unless you offer something, people cannot really change."        

Any successful intervention must also help users develop new sources of income.

"Almost all the users are also small-scale pushers. They get their portion free, but at the same time sell to others to get a little income. If you stop their business, they have no way to survive, no way to feed their children," the priest said. Feloni said that as the programme took shape, he had some very frank discussions with the police. "I was also honest with them and said, 'Don't kill them afterward,'" he said. The priest, who said he and local police are "on the same page", said he worries about the effect the killings are having on Philippine society.

"A lot of people are really taking the president's ideas very seriously, and that's dangerous. People make decisions about each other's lives, and they put an addict on the same level as a drug lord. We are not very far away from becoming like Isis. It could be people drinking or having a long beard, or having an extramarital relationship or playing cards. At the end, everybody should be killed," he added.

"We are becoming a much more violent society. And that can easily spiral out of control. As the church we have to do something. They were asking me today about what could happen to any of us who are working on this. We can also be targets of violence. And I said that the biggest danger is that we as a church do nothing. We will face God and God will ask us what we have done beside funerals," he said. 

The priest, who has served in the Philippines for 22 years, recognises the personal risks involved. "We are trying to take clients away from the drug syndicates. When you rehabilitate people, then less people will buy drugs, and they won't be happy. Police officers who protect the syndicates will not be happy. So a lot of people will be happy to kill either the neighborhood captain or myself," said Father Feloni, who says he is intentionally varying his daily routine.

Bishop Antonio Tobias of Novaliches was present for the surrender ceremony, and  Feloni said the church sees his program as a pilot project for the diocese and beyond. "If after six months the parish priest is still alive, then other parishes will be encouraged to do the same,"  Feloni said.

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