Last week, as the bodies of alleged drug dealers piled up on the streets of the Philippines, the nation’s leading churchman finally broke his silence. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila and a leading papabile, gave a radio interview in which he criticised the murders, alongside other forms of killing such as abortion.

No one who has followed Filipino politics is surprised that President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has become so deadly so quickly. Duterte had promised to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months as president, dropping their bodies in Manila Bay until “the fish will grow fat”. He is well on the way to keeping that promise – and it seems no one can stop him.

On Monday, Reuters reported that 2,400 people have been killed since July 1. Around 900 died during police operations and the remainder are classified as “deaths under investigation” – a euphemism for vigilante killings, according to human rights activists.

The first Church leader to speak out about the rising death toll was Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the country’s bishops’ conference. Last month he urged priests to take to the pulpit and denounce the killings. “In our dream to wipe out drug addiction, are we not becoming a killing fields nation?” Archbishop Villegas asked in his message, which was read out in churches. “From a generation of drug addicts, shall we become a generation of street murderers?”

Cardinal Tagle’s intervention was far less direct. In an interview with the Church-run Radio Veritas, he put it like this: “Many are worried of extrajudicial killings and we should be… But I hope we’re also worried about abortion. Why are only few people speaking out against abortion? That’s also murder!”

He then described unfair labour practices as “murder”, because they are “a form of murder against the dignity of labourers”. He continued: “Those wasting food, those putting food in the garbage can before others pick it up and feed it to their families – that is also a form of murder against children with nothing to eat.”

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