Getting close to Pope Francis is next to impossible for many Filipinos, especially those who live in the peripheries. Even if one is able to go to the Vatican, swimming through a sea of people is “mission impossible.”
But nothing is impossible for grieving hearts like those of Marissa Lazaro and Katherine Bautista, mothers of victims of so-called extra-judicial killings related to the Philippines’ war against narcotics.
To go near the pope and hand their letters of appeal may come short of a miracle, but Lazaro and Bautista did not wait for it to happen.
They braved the estimated 50,000 people who were waiting for the pontiff at St. Peter’s Square and squeezed their way to the front.
When Pope Francis showed up, the mothers shouted, “Please get these letters!” The Holy Father, who was at least ten meters from them, looked over.
“The experience was extraordinary,” said Bautista. Then one of the papal escorts took the handwritten letters from the Filipino women who were seeking the pope’s blessing and prayer for their slain sons.
They said they also asked the leader of the Catholic Church to pray for “justice for all the victims” of the killings and for “peace to reign” in the land.
“I am here to ask favor to pray for my son and all the victims of the killings,” read one of the letters. “It is really hard to accept that I lost my son because of the fake war on drugs in our country,” it added.
The mothers have a long story to tell, but they kept the letters as simple as possible.
Lazaro’s 20-year-old son, Christopher, was killed on Aug. 5, 2017. He wanted to become a policeman, but his dream was lost in the middle of the night.
The mother claimed that his son was never involved in the illegal drug trade or even used drugs. The police, however, claimed that Christopher was killed because he fought back at arresting officers.
A medical report later showed that there were ligature marks on the boy’s wrists, suggesting that he was tied or handcuffed before he was killed.
John Jezreel David, Bautista’s stepson, was killed in Tondo district in Manila on Jan. 20, 2017. He was working as a hotel room attendant to support his sister’s education during the time of his death.
The narrative of the police was the same, the boy was killed because he fought back during a drug buy-bust operation.
Witnesses said there was no buy-bust operation. Footage from a close-circuit camera in the area showed that John was arrested by the police and was brought to a detention center.
He was later brought out of the detention cell with two more others. Witnesses later testified that that saw three people in handcuffs being brought out by the police.
Back in the Vatican, when Pope Francis neared the two mothers, their companions raised white papers where these words were written: “Journey with us for justice and peace in the Philippines.”
The people holding the papers were members of the faith-based group Rise Up for Life and Rights and were part of a delegation of a theater presentation that is doing a European tour to raise awareness about the situation back home.
Nardy Sabino, convener of the group, said they were planning to seek an audience with the pontiff but the pope’s schedule did not allow it.
“We decided to push our luck and tried to meet him at the general audience,” said Sabino, who is also secretary general of the Promotion of Church People’s Response in Manila.
Sabino recalled that it was almost impossible to get near the pope because of the thousands of people. “But the mothers were determined to get close to him,” he said.
When the moment came for the women to see the pope, they were “so still and quiet,” said Sabino. “It was a moment of mixed emotions, of nervousness, and excitement,” he said.
“The feeling was indescribable when the pope gazed at them and someone from his security detail took the letters,” he recalled. “It made [the mothers] feel that their voice and prayers are also important.”
Rise up for Life and Rights and the families of the victims of drug-related killings in the country have filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Aug. 28, 2018, against the Philippine government.
On Oct. 3, a 16-page supplemental second pleading to support their earlier complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte was submitted to the courts in The Netherlands.
The complainants accused the Philippine National Police of “manipulating the numbers, definitions, and categorizations” of death in their attempt to shield the actual number of drug-related deaths in the country.
The cases of the Lazaro’s and Bautista’s sons were included in the evidence.
The ICC started its probe into the Philippine killings in February of last year, but the Manila government has officially withdrawn its ratification of the Rome Statute that established the international court.
Sabino said their attempt to receive an audience with the pope is part of the campaign to seek support from the Catholic Church and other religions.
“Apart from prayers, we believe that Pope Francis will speak up and stand with us against the injustices happening in our country right now,” he said.
He said the families of the victims of social injustices in the Philippines “have no one else to cling on but the Church that sides with the poor and with the most abandoned.”
Sabino said the experience of getting near the pontiff “tells us that we are not just dots on the wall.”
“We are not just nameless faces. It tells us that the drug killing victims, our loved ones, were not just statistics,” he said. “This tells us that the Church is here on our side.”
The grieving mothers left St. Peter’s Square with “hope in our hearts” that someday, in the near future, “our prayers for justice and peace will finally come with the pope’s help.”