BEIJING — Church bells will ring out in the Philippines — and peal again and again for three months — as one of the country’s most influential Catholic clerics seeks to draw attention to President Rodrigo Duterte’s increasingly bloody crackdown on drug suspects.
The bell-ringing protest, expected to begin Tuesday, is isolated to one archdiocese north of Manila. But the showdown has riveted the nation.
It pits Duterte’s populist strong-arm policies against a well-known archbishop at a time when the church faces widening calls to take a stronger stance against heavy-handed police tactics, which last week left at least 70 people dead.
“The country is [in] chaos,” Archbishop Socrates Villegas said Sunday. “The officer who kills is rewarded and the slain get the blame. The corpses could no longer defend themselves from accusations that they fought back.”
Among the recent dead: Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student. Police said he was shot after he fired at them, then fled. But widely circulated surveillance video showed the teenager being dragged away. Witnesses say he was beaten, handed a gun, told to run and then shot.
As outrage over the teenager’s death spread, the country’s Roman Catholic leaders used Sunday sermons to call for a stop to the killing in the church’s largest bastion in Asia.
“We knock on the conscience of those who kill even the helpless,” Cardinal Luis Tagle said in a statement read in Masses in the capital, Manila.
Villegas said church bells in his archdiocese will toll for 15 minutes each night beginning Tuesday, a feast day for the Virgin Mary, until Nov. 27, another feast day.
The Catholic Church, once a powerful force in Philippine politics, has struggled to respond to Duterte’s self-proclaimed war on drugs, with some clerics staying silent and others working, with limited resources, to help victims.
Last week, more than 70 suspected drug users and others were killed in what is believed to be the deadliest week since Duterte launched the campaign last year.
In one central province, police killed at least 32 people in the span of 24 hours last week. Rather than condemn the violence, Duterte praised it.
“Those who died in Bulacan, 32, in a massive raid, that’s good,” he said. “If we can kill another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”
In the days that followed, similar raids hit metropolitan Manila, with at least 44 people, including delos Santos, killed.
Over the course of the past year, police have insisted, often contrary to evidence, that those killed in such operations “fought back,” usually by firing at — but invariably missing — police officers.
Judging by Duterte’s approval ratings, millions of Filipinos either believe the police reports or simply don’t care if people identified as drug users are shot dead instead of being arrested.
But now — faced with the evidence from security video — some of Duterte’s staunchest allies are calling for an investigation into the delos Santos shooting.
“It’s not in our nature to be happy over the killings,” Villegas said Sunday.
“Don’t we know how to weep? Why aren’t we shocked by the gunfire and flow of blood on the sidewalk?”