Despite the climate of fear in the Philippines, a growing number of churches have opened their network of safe houses to people at risk of being killed

The Catholic church in the Philippines is operating a network that hides addicts and others targeted in president Rodrigo Dutertes bloody drug war, priests have told the Guardian.

More than 7,000 people have been killed by Philippine law enforcement officers and vigilantes in Dutertes crusade against alleged addicts and dealers, often in hit-and-run style attacks by gunmen on motorcycles.

Victims are occasionally tipped off in advance that they are on a kill list and attempt to flee into hiding.

At his church in Quezon City on the outskirts of Manila, one of the few to have provided sanctuary is Father Gilbert Billena, despite admitting that he voted for Duterte in the election last year.

Even me, I was in favour of the war on drugs but I didnt expect this outcome, he said.

Many Filipinos support the executions, believing their neighbourhoods are safer, while others are afraid to speak out for fear that they will be accused of collaboration.

Despite the fear, a growing number of churches have opened their doors and their network of safe houses to people at risk of being targeted.

In one hideaway is an 18-year-old who asked for anonymity. In December, he survived a deadly vigilante-style shooting at a house party in one of the Philippines major cities. Seven people, most of them teenagers, were killed. He suffered a bullet in his abdomen.

The young man lives in fear, afraid the shooters may want to finish the job. There were rumours that there was a survivor and it was me the ones who did this would think theres a witness, he said.

Immediately after the slaughter, he sought sanctuary from the only institution that would take him in.

The church has helped him find temporary work, which he says he enjoys, but he worries about being exposed to strangers. Fireworks frighten him and he suffers from nightmares and insomnia.

These are the people who have been targeted by the cops, says Billena, the spokesman for Rise Up, a multifaith movement founded to resist the drug war. We offer the church to them on the condition that they should be serious about changing [their lives].

Father Gilbert Billena at a church in Quezon City, Manila. Photograph: Poppy McPherson

Despite mounting casualties, the senior leadership of the church in the majority-Catholic Philippines was initially silent on the lethal campaign. Many within its ranks were initially proponents.

But faced with growing numbers of dead, attitudes are changing. Sermons written by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and read out at Sunday services all over the country earlier this month labeled the anti-drug crusade a reign of terror.

The numbers of churches actually taking action against the campaign are still fairly few. Within Billenas diocese, there are only five or six, he says, despite an instruction from Antonio Tobias, Bishop of Novaliches, to give help to those in need.

He told me personally: Give them sanctuary. Open the doors of the churches, Billena says. Many also are not doing perhaps because they are afraid. They do not know how to do it.

The concept of providing sanctuary has a long history within Christian tradition. During the early years of the religion, fugitives were legally entitled to shelter in churches if they could get one body part inside the building or simply clasp the rings on the doors. Though the official right to sanctuary was phased out by the end of the 1600s, the practice has continued informally.

It has far more recent precedent in the Philippines during the Marcos era when churches harboured journalists, senators and other intellectuals declared enemies of the state by the regime. One of the most famous is the Baclaran, or the Redemptorist church, which runs several safe houses.

Us Redemptorists, weve been in more difficult situations before, says Brother Jun Santiago.

One 18-year-old in hiding witnessed a massacre in his neighbourhood. Photograph: Poppy McPherson

The Baclarans outspoken response to the drug war has made it a target for criticism. In a speech last year, Duterte singled out a photographic exhibition put on by the church that displayed the dead bodies of victims.

Although the drug war has slowed since Duterte announced a temporary pause in late January, the killings continue. The president has called in the army to take over from the police.

And Dutertes allies still pursue his critics, with police arresting a senator on Friday who has been the most high-profile voice of dissent. Senator Leila de Lima insisted she was innocent of the drug trafficking charges that could see her jailed for life, saying they were put forward to silence her.

Last month, we had two visitors straight from Malacaang, from the palace, says Santiago, referring to the residence and workplace of the president. They were our friends but they gave us some indicators that you are under watch.

The local police are aware of the presence of drug addicts protected by the church.

Nevertheless, the church continues to offer sanctuary and helps raise funds for families who cannot afford to bury their dead.

If we were intimidated, that would be the end of the role of the church, says Santiago, adding that at least 20 people he knows have been given sanctuary, some of them moved from place to place to ensure their safety.

Recently, he helped a woman whose sister was selling shabu, or methamphetamines, after losing her job at a beauty salon.

Masked men came into the house and dragged the woman away, telling her family to go to the local police station if they wanted answers. They later found her body in a nearby alley.

Her sister got a text from a number she believes belongs to a local police officer saying she would be next. We have eyes that watch over you, it read.

The 32-year-old and her three small children tried to shelter with neighbours but they were too scared to take her in. Eventually she found her way to the Baclaran, which found them somewhere to stay.

She says that after her sisters burial, she decided to kick her own habit. I thought: Im also going to bury my vice, she says. I want to regain myself and retaliate later on.

This whole thing the war on drugs it is only the small-time people being targeted, she says. Normally we look at the tree and cut the roots, and end things, but this time its the other way around cut the branches and the roots still remain.

Additional reporting by Rica Concepcion.

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