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Simbang Gabi in Cebu: ‘Why are killings okay?’

CEBU CITY, Philippines – On the 6th morning of Simbang Gabi at the Carmelite Monastery here, Catholic priest Father Ramon Echica asked parishioners during his homily to reflect on their views on human rights.

“With human rights, is there a gap with the faith and our own behavior?” Echica asked early morning on Saturday, December 21. "Why do we think that killing is okay?"

“And the ones who brought Christianity here – but are no longer practicing Christians today – are the ones telling us that it is not okay,” he added.

The Philippines is a Catholic majority country with an estimated 80 million Catholics out of a population of 104 million people.

But many countries and international bodies have raised concerns over extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses in the Philippines since the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte began its anti-drug campaign in 2016.

Although Echica did not refer to the President by name, Duterte's popularity remains high amid international attention over killings linked to the war on drugs. 

The Church has been vocal against the drug war and of Duterte's human rights record, which has put them at the receiving end of the President's tirades in almost every public speech. (READ: Duterte said kill the bishops – and his word became flesh)

Earlier this year, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council voted to investigate the thousands of unsolved killings in the country, allegedly linked to the drug war. 

(READ: UN rights council adopts resolution vs PH drug war killing)

While authorities place the number of drug war casualties at below 6,000, human rights and non-governmental organizations have placed that number at over 20,000. 
That number has been rising in Cebu and the Central Visayas since 2018.

In February 2019, the CHR said the Central Visayas had the 4th highest number of drug-linked killings in the country. (READ: Church leaders, advocates say human rights ‘deteriorating’ in Visayas)

Reflect on human rights

Echica is the dean of the Seminario Mayor de San Carlos’ theology department. 

He asked Cebuanos to reflect on how they view human rights with respect to their religion. 

“God, who created us in his image, is assumed in our human nature,” he said. “If you don’t believe in human rights, you might as well not celebrate Christmas.” 

While no names were mentioned during the homily, the now popular belief that human rights protect criminals can be traced to the President and his allies in Congress who have constantly – and falsely – made that claim. (READ: 3 years on, Bong Go still wrongly thinks CHR 'protects' only criminals)

Cebu will also take center stage in the 2021 quincentennial celebrations, which mark 500 years since Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines and Christianized indigenous tribes here. He brought with him the image of the child Jesus, known as the Santo Niño, whose feast continues to be celebrated yearly through the Fiesta Senyor and Sinulog in January.

Duterte remains popular in Cebu where he won 1.4 million votes when he ran for president in 2016, while his rival ex-interior secretary Manuel "Mar" Roxas II won only under 600,000 votes. 


The Carmelite Monastery, where the Simbang Gabi was held, was also where late opposition leader and former president Corazon Aquino once took refuge with her daughter Kris in 1986, days before the ouster of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos through the People Power Revolution. (READ: Are we safe here? The night Cory Aquino hid in Cebu)

Before ending his homily, the theology dean emphasized to churchgoers that the point of the story of Jesus was that God came to save everyone, not only certain people.

“For God, everyone is worth saving. Christmas tells us that everyone is worth saving, no exception whatsoever,” Echica concluded. 

Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers Cebu and the Visayas for Rappler. He covers all news in the region, but is particularly interested in people stories, development issues and local policy making.