MANILA • Catholic bishops yesterday led thousands of Philippine worshippers in calling for an end to killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war as they urged police and troops to stop the violence.
The killing of three teenagers in August triggered rare public protests against Mr Duterte's anti-drug campaign, with rights groups accusing him of committing crimes against humanity in a crackdown that has claimed thousands of lives.
The Catholic Church, which counts 80 per cent of Filipinos as followers, has been one of the leading critics of the war on drugs and has launched campaigns to stop the killings, including one that started yesterday dubbed Heal Our Land.
The church organised a mass and procession along a historic Manila highway called EDSA, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, where a bloodless popular revolt ended the iron rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
About 3,000 people, including opposition lawmakers and students, joined the event, according to the police. They carried candles and placards that read "Stop the Killings. Start the Healing".
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, said at the mass: "Peace to you in the armed forces and the police. Stop the violence and uphold the law.
"If we do not stop the killings, there will be punishment for a nation that kills its own people."
Mr Duterte, 72, won elections last year after campaigning on a law-and-order platform, and since then police have reported killing more than 3,900 "drug personalities".
Mr Duterte's spokesman yesterday said the President did not condone extrajudicial killings, adding that the government was investigating another 2,243 deaths in unsolved "drug-related" cases.
"The President himself made a clear stance that any violation committed by the police during operations would be dealt with accordingly," Mr Harry Roque added.
Critics said Mr Duterte's frequent public pronouncements on the drug war have been direct incitements to kill.
Archbishop Villegas said the killings tested the nation and cited the case of 17-year-old student Kian Delos Santos, who died in a police anti-drug raid in August.
"Please stop. I still have a test tomorrow," he quoted Delos Santos as saying, following witness accounts that he had begged for his life.