By Manuel Mogato and Clare Baldwin
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine government derided Catholic bishops on Sunday as "out of touch" after they used weekend sermons to attack a war on drugs they said had created a "reign of terror" for the poor.
Members of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had dramatised President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign and, instead of criticising, should focus on contributing to the "reign of peace" that innocent people now felt, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said.
The church assailed bloodshed that had caused suffering, and said killing people was not the way to deal with illegal drugs.
In a pastoral letter read out on Saturday and repeated to congregations at churches on Sunday, bishops said it was disturbing that many people in the majority Catholic nation were indifferent to the killings, or even approved of them.
Abella, a former pastor, said the war on drugs had made the country safer, "far from the 'terror' the bishops paint rather dramatically."
"The officials of the CBCP are apparently out of touch with the sentiments of the faithful who overwhelmingly support the changes in the Philippines," Abella said in a statement.
More than 7,600 people have been killed since Duterte unleashed a ferocious crackdown seven months ago, more than 2,500 in police raids and sting operations.
Human rights groups believe many other deaths that police had attributed to vigilantes were carried out by assassins likely colluding with police. The government and police vehemently deny extrajudicial killings have occurred.
The CBCP's message was read at numerous churches in Manila attended by Reuters, though not all. Church sources said the Archdiocese of Manila issued a circular telling parishes to read the pastoral letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters prior to the first readings.
The drugs war is a contentious issue, with some bishops keen to make a stand and others hesitant to risk a backlash by criticising a campaign that enjoys broad public support.
Duterte has routinely attacked the Church, and as recently as this week called for a "showdown" with priests whom he has accused of having wives, engaging in homosexual acts, graft and child abuse.
In a speech late on Sunday, Duterte shrugged off the bishops' letter and said there would be no let-up in his campaign.
"You Catholics, if you believe in your priests and bishops, you stay with them. If you want to go to heaven, then go to them," he said. "Now, if you want to end drugs ... I will go to hell, come join me."
"GIVE THEM A CHANCE"
Katrina Rufael, an office worker who attended mass at the Baclaran Redemptorist Church, said the pastoral letter was justified.
"We have to oppose the war on drugs, because we cannot just put an end to the life of people who have made mistakes," she said. "Let's give them a chance to change."
Elsewhere in Manila, at the Chapel of the Eucharistic Lord, a packed congregation listened attentively to the plea to stop the killings.
"Life is a gift from God, and only God can take it away," said Ligaya Reyes, a government worker. "It was a strong statement, it should have been made a long time ago when the killing began."
The statement was also heard at a chapel in the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters on Saturday. Not all agreed with it.
"They're not being killed if they just surrender," said a policeman's wife, who gave her name as Dolores and said the PNP had been unfairly depicted as murderers for shooting drugs suspects resisting arrest.
"What the president's doing right now ... he's doing good. Because for the common people, it's our safety."
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato and Clare Baldwin, with additional reporting by Ronn Bautista and Karen Lema; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)