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By Clare Baldwin and Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA (Reuters) - Catholic priests from the Philippines Church, an institution that helped oust two of the country's leaders in the past, say they are afraid and unsure how to speak out against the war on drugs unleashed by new President Rodrigo Duterte.
In interviews with Reuters, more than a dozen clergymen in Asia's biggest Catholic nation said they were uncertain how to take a stand against the thousands of killings in a war that has such overwhelming popular support. Challenging the president's campaign could be fraught with danger, some said.
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Duterte, who had a 76 percent satisfaction rating in a survey released last week, has quashed opposition to his war on drugs and blasted critics in curse-laden language. More than 3,600 people, mostly small-time drug users and dealers, have died at the hands of police and suspected vigilantes since he took power on June 30.
In another poll conducted by the same agency, the Social Weather Stations, 84 percent of respondents said they were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the war on the drugs, although a majority said they had qualms about the killings.
Opposing the drug war "in some locations becomes a dangerous job", said Father Luciano Felloni, a priest in a northern district of the capital, Manila. At least 30 people, including a child and a pregnant woman, have been killed in his 'barangay', or neighborhood, where he is setting up community-based rehabilitation for drug users.
"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."
Another priest, who like several others asked for anonymity because of possible reprisals, said 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.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella 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."
Duterte said on Monday he would not stop the campaign.
"I'm really appalled by so many groups and individuals, including priests and bishops, complaining about the number of persons killed in the operation against drugs," he said in a speech in the southern city of Zamboanga.
"If I stop, the next generation would be lost."
"CHURCH WILL LOSE"
Some priests have supported Duterte's war on drugs.
"Are the means unnecessarily illegitimate?" said Father Joel Tabora, a Jesuit priest in Davao, where Duterte was mayor for 22 years, and where about 1,400 people were killed from 1998 until the end of last year in a similar anti-crime and anti-drug campaign, according to activists.
"People are dying, yes, but on the other hand, millions of people are being helped," said Tabora.
Three decades ago, the Church in the Philippines championed a 'People Power' revolution that reverberated around the world and ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It also participated in a popular movement in 2001 that led to the impeachment and removal of another president, Joseph Estrada.
For the Vatican, the Philippines is a key eastern hub: it has the third-largest population of Catholics globally and accounts for more than half of Asia's roughly 148 million Catholics.
Nearly 80 percent of the 100 million people in the Philippines are Catholic and, unlike in many other countries where the faith was once strong, the vast majority still practice with enthusiasm.
Duterte, who is not a regular church-goer himself and says he was sexually abused by a priest as a boy, has publicly questioned the Church's relevance and he dubbed May's presidential election a referendum between him and the Church.
His victory by a substantial margin indicates that despite its appeal, the political clout of the Church is waning, some priests say. Indeed, many churchgoers who spoke to Reuters said they supported the war on drugs.
At the San Felipe Neri Parish Church in Manila on a recent Sunday, Father Francis Lucas said in a sermon that the Philippines was going through a "moral crisis".
"Why are all of these killings happening?" he asked, pacing in front of hundreds of people packed into wooden pews. "You have to love and care for one another."
Lucas is one of the few priests to oppose the killings in his sermons. But he later told Reuters it was unfair to expect the Church to influence the course of the war on drugs because it no longer had the secular power it once enjoyed.
"How come everybody wants the Church to act when others don't?" Lucas said. "Yes, we have influence but times have also changed."
In the car park outside the church, where people had spilled out and were listening on loudspeakers, his sermon did not go down well.
"The Church has to back off," said Jenny Calma, a 34-year-old mother of two.
"We voted for our president because he promised to stop drugs," Calma said as her children played between parked cars.
"The Church will lose" if it takes on Duterte over the killings, she added. "The feeling, the atmosphere in the community - sometimes the Church understands, sometimes it doesn't."
"LIFE IS CHEAP"
Nevertheless, some in the clergy are providing shelter to individuals trying to flee the campaign.
"There are cases where asylum is being sought and given, which are not brought to the attention of media ... especially during these times when life is cheap and summary execution is a way of living, and extra-judicial killing is a matter of course," retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz told Reuters.
He was also head of the country's apex Catholic body, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Cruz said details of the priests involved, their locations and who they were protecting were restricted because of the dangers involved.
Reuters spoke with one priest who temporarily hid someone fearing for his life, but the priest declined to be named because of concerns about his safety. He said that if any details were revealed he would become a target.
At the Vatican, a senior official said the Holy See's Secretariat of State was following the situation in the Philippines closely but, as with all countries, would leave it to the national bishops' conference to make its position on internal matters known to governments.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue, however called the extra-judicial killings in the Philippines worrying.
After Duterte took power, the first official comment from the Philippines' conference of bishops came in mid-September. By then the president had been in office for two-and-a-half months and almost 3,000 people had died.
In that message, the CBCP said "deaths because of police encounters, deaths from extra-judicial killings" were cause for mourning and that drug addicts needed healing. But it also echoed the president's language, noting that the drug users "may have behaved as scum and rubbish".
Cruz said the Church was being "prudent" because so many people supported the summary execution of drug dealers.
"The CBCP also has to be very careful because it might unnecessarily offend a good number of people with goodwill, who are Catholics themselves," he said.
Under long-serving Cardinal Jaime Sin, the Philippines Church helped topple Presidents Marcos and Estrada and campaigned against the death penalty, which was suspended in 2006.
Sin, who retired in 2003 and died two years later, saw the Church's role as socio-political. However, before he retired, he initiated the division of the Archdiocese of Manila into multiple dioceses all run independently under different bishops.
Now, priests say, the Church's leadership is more fragmented and, because of that, carries less clout. Since the division, the Church has lost critical political battles, most notably failing to block a reproductive health bill promoting artificial contraception in 2012.
(Additional reporting by Manny Mogato, Neil Jerome Morales and Andrew R.C. Marshall in Manila and Philip Pullella at the Vatican; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)