MANILA (AFP) - Thousands of Catholic faithful gathered in the Philippine capital on Saturday (Feb 18) for a "show of force" in the biggest rally yet to stop extrajudicial killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war.
More than 6,000 people have died since Duterte took office seven months ago and ordered an unprecedented crime war that has drawn global criticism for alleged human rights abuses, but is popular with many in the mainly Catholic country.
Members of one of the nation's oldest and most powerful institutions chanted prayers and sang hymns as they marched to condemn a "spreading culture of violence".
"We have to stand up. Somehow this is already a show of force by the faithful that they don't like these extrajudicial killings," Manila bishop Broderick Pabillo told AFP before addressing the crowd.
"I am alarmed and angry at what's happening because this is something that is regressive. It does not show our humanity."
Duterte, 71, has attacked the Church as being "full of shit" and "the most hypocritical institution" for speaking out against a campaign that he says would save generations of Filipinos from the drug menace.
About eight in 10 Filipinos are Catholic, making the former Spanish colony of more than 100 million people Asia's bastion of Christianity.
The Church helped lead the revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and a 2001 uprising against then-president Joseph Estrada that saw him ousted over corruption charges.
It had initially declined to voice opposition publicly to Duterte's drug war but, as the death toll of mostly poor people mounted, it began late last year to call for the killings to end.
Saturday's event, called the "Walk for Life", gathered 20,000 people, according to the organisers. Manila police estimated the crowd at 10,000.
The rally also opposed Duterte's push to restore the death penalty, his top legislative priority as part of his crime war.
"It is obvious that there is a spreading culture of violence. It is saddening to see, sometimes it drives me to tears how violent words seem so natural and ordinary," said Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle, the country's highest-ranking Church official.
"In your surroundings, in your neighbourhood, there are so many lives that must be saved. They will not be saved by mere discussion."
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines had called on the faithful to gather at the Quirino Grandstand, where Duterte held a huge pre-election rally, from 4.30am.
"Why dawn? It's because it is during these hours that we find bodies on the streets or near trash cans. Dawn, which is supposed to be the hour of a new start, is becoming an hour of tears and fears," Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the bishops' conference, told the crowd.
Villegas this month issued the Church's strongest statement against the drug war, warning against a "reign of terror" in poor communities.
Among those who attended Saturday's event was Senator Leila de Lima, a former human rights commissioner and one of Duterte's most vocal opponents.
The government on Friday filed charges against her for allegedly running a drug trafficking ring using criminals in the country's largest prison when she was justice secretary in the previous administration.
De Lima, who has repeatedly insisted the charges against her are trumped up to silence her and intimidate other Duterte critics, said she attended Saturday's event as a show of solidarity.
"For as long as I can, I will continue to fight. They cannot silence me," De Lima, who is expecting to be arrested in the coming days, told AFP.
Bone cancer survivor Lucy Castillo, 56, turned up in a wheelchair along with dozens of other people with disabilities.
"When I was in so much pain, I could have taken my life but I did not. Only God can take it," she told AFP.
"I was diagnosed 40 years ago but I was given a chance to live. I want to give these drug addicts another chance."