MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Thousands of Catholics joined a march with church leaders in Manila on Saturday in one of the largest shows of opposition against President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly crackdown against illegal drugs and attempts to revive the death penalty.
Police estimated that at least 10,000 people joined the "Walk for Life" march and rally starting at dawn at Rizal Park, carrying placards that read "Choose life" and "No to death penalty." Organizers gave a larger estimate of the crowd.
It's the latest sign of the Roman Catholic Church's increasing activism against a government crackdown that has left thousands of drug suspects dead and efforts by pro-Duterte legislators to reimpose capital punishment as early as next month.
Catholic bishops expressed their deep concern over the drug killings in a recent statement read in churches across the country.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, who heads the country's bishops, said no civilized country should allow such illegal actions to continue unabated. "They ought to be judged by the court of law and never by the extrajudicial means," Villegas said in a statement, where he also hit at efforts by legislators to reimpose the death penalty.
Duterte, a longtime city mayor before being elected to the presidency in May on an anti-crime platform, has asked Congress to revive the death penalty, preferably by public hanging. That, along with his pro-birth control stance and threats to kill criminals, has put him on a collision course with the church in Asia's largest Catholic nation.
"Execution is murder,' Villegas said. "We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill."
Duterte has been antagonistic to the influential church, once calling it "the most hypocritical institution" and lashing out at some local bishops he accused of corruption and sexual abuse.
The foul-mouthed president shocked Roman Catholics two years ago when he fired off an expletive while expressing his disgust over a monstrous traffic jam that trapped him while Pope Francis was visiting Manila.
He later apologized after Filipino bishops expressed shock and outrage.
Sen. Leila de Lima, one of the most vocal critics of Duterte's bloody anti-drug campaign, joined Saturday's rally. State prosecutors charged her in court Friday for allegedly receiving bribes from detained drug lords, an allegation she has staunchly denied.
The prosecutors alleged that de Lima, while she was justice secretary under President Benigno Aquino, received huge bribes from detained drug lords to finance her senatorial campaign last year. The bribes were allegedly solicited by her former driver and lover, who was also charged.
If judges, who would handle the three separate complaints, assess that there are strong evidence against her, they may decide to issue a warrant for her arrest.
When she was a top human rights official, de Lima tried unsuccessfully to have Duterte prosecuted when he was still a city mayor for unlawful deaths occurring during his deadly anti-drug crackdown.
De Lima told reporters at the rally that the criminal charges were meant to intimidate her, but said Duterte's administration would fail. "I will continue to fight. They cannot silence me," she said.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.