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Why religious leaders support war on drugs

07 May 2018

By Leo A. Deocadiz

“Thou shalt not kill,” says the fifth commandment.

But majority of pastors and priests who were surveyed in the urban poor community of Payatas, Quezon City, are not swayed by this invocation—they support the government’s war on drugs, or have remained silent even after it has left more than 20,000 people dead in the last two years.

In a way, this reflects the national sentiment towards the drug war. A recent survey by Pulse Asia shows that 88% of adult Filipinos support the war on drugs.

The view has not been swayed by the mounting number of extrajudicial killings, which have claimed the lives of even innocent people such as student Kian de los Santos, who was dragged from his family’s sari sari store and shot by policemen.

The main reason is that drug users are viewed by these religious leaders are swine or sinners, according to Dr. Jayeel Cornelio, an Ateneo de Manila social science professor who is a visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It has nothing to do with church-state relations, is has nothing to do with the management of religion. It has to do with theological vision.”

Cornelio’s study on the religious responses to the war on drugs in Payatas is part of a three-part research funded by the Australian National University. The two others are being done by Ging Gutierrez, a sociologist of crime from the University of the Philippines Diliman, who is looking into the negotiated identities of drug dependents arrested and detained in the war on drugs; and by Nicole Curato, a political sociologist from University of Canberra who is looking into why victims of the war on drugs are not given as much compassion as victims of Typhoon Yolanda.

“When we embarked on our research in 2017, our working hypothesis was this: that a religious leader would become socially and politically involved against the anti-drug campaign if and when the congregation was directly affected.... We thought the Catholic parish set the precedent because it was clear to us that they became more involved when many of their parishioners were being killed,” Cornelio said in a lecture recently at the City University of Hong Kong. “But we noticed that this could not explain why other churches with similar experiences did not follow suit.”

Cornelio said his research revealed two groups of religious leaders in Payatas: those who believed that drug users were swine or sinners, and those who regarded addicts as poor and victims of their poverty.
Dr. Jayeel Cornelio discusses his findings during a lecture at the City University of HK.

“If the drug user is a sinner/swine, then the response is spiritual, nothing to do with politics,” he said. “If the drug user is a victim of injustices, then the response is political.”

Majority of religious leaders see taking drugs as being away from God, and a deliberate act of sinning.

“To them the problem of substance abuse is a function of the failure of their relationship with the Holy Spirit,” Cornelio said.

He cited a pastor who likened drug dependents to swine, and quoted Jesus’ injunction to “Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet. (which means that you don’t reveal the Gospel to people who are not interested in it).” (Matthew 7:6)

“He rightly says that there are more kids in Payatas than there are drug addicts,” Cornelio added.

He quoted a number of church leaders, whose identities he withheld. A pastor of a mega church, with outreach in Payatas, told him: “God gave us government to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. They have swords and guns for a reason.”

The minority view, on the other hand, characterized drug users as victims, “In their view, criminal acts are committed not because of individual choices but because of structural causes like extreme poverty, unemployment and derpessed psychosocial conditions of the area.”

This group believes that people, especially the religious, need to give drug users a chance. “As a matter of fact, for a female youth minister, not giving them a chance is a form of injustice itself. She’s alluding to the extrajudicial killing in the community itself,” Cornelio added.

“They also instituted many interventions. The Catholics are so good at this. Everything from helping the families, providing scholarships to the children, setting up psychological trauma support system for them, and even providing legal services for them. One reasons is they have the resources and the network,” he said,

Cornelio quoted a lay leader, a lawyer: “We are not fighting the anti-drug campaign, we are fighting summary executions. They destroy the bill of rights, the very pillar of our democracy.”

And worse, killing drug dependents merely worsened the poverty of the families they left behind.

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