President Rodrigo Duterte speaks with newly promoted police officers inside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Jan. 19. (King Rodriguez/PPD via European Pressphoto Agency)

To the list of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s critics, add a big one: the Catholic Church of the Philippines.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines this weekend called the president’s “drug war” a “reign of terror in many places of the poor.” The letter, which was reportedly relayed in sermons on Sunday, questioned why so many Filipinos, about 80 percent of whom identify as Catholic, seem indifferent to the violent deaths of 7,000 people in seven months.

Duterte, who has already shrugged off criticism from foreign governments, the United Nations and human rights groups, dismissed this latest critique with dark bravado, urging his countrymen to “join” him in hell.

“You Catholics, if you believe in your priests and bishops, you stay with them. If you want to go to heaven, then go to them,” he said. “Now, if you want to end drugs … I will go to hell. Come join me.”

In a country where the Catholic Church has long held considerable sway, it’s striking to see the church speak out — even if it took months.

Although state calls to “massacre” suspects without due process might seem like an obvious point of contention for the Philippines’ Catholic hierarchy, the church has been slow to condemn the killing with a unified voice. Some priests and bishops have opposed the violence from the start, but others have publicly supported the president, mostly on the grounds that his social policies are seen as pro-poor.

The letter seems to be an effort to end the official silence, adding a key voice to a growing chorus of critics. Their message — that Duterte’s drug war is really a “reign of terror” against the poor — is all the more powerful because it comes just after Amnesty International characterized Duterte’s campaign as a “war on the poor.”

Amnesty’s report cast Duterte’s anti-drug campaign as “possible crimes against humanity.” Based on interviews with more than 100 Filipinos and close examination of 33 cases, the report found that police have, with backing from the government, targeted the disenfranchised, recruited paid assassins, planted evidence and fabricated reports.

The organization's findings echo closely accounts that Philippine rights groups and local and foreign journalists have been reporting for months, but that were nonetheless dismissed by Duterte’s administration. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II responded to the accusation of possible crimes against humanity not by denying police behavior but by questioning whether the dead could even be considered part of humanity.

“How can that be when your war is only against drug lords, drug addicts, drug pushers? You consider them humanity? No. I believe not,” he said.

Aguirre’s response is in some ways similar to Duterte’s answer to the church. Rather than address the substance of its criticism, Duterte dodged. His wager seems to be that ordinary Filipinos are more concerned with anti-crime campaigns than questions of summary killing or eternal damnation, which, per recent poll data, may be true.

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