STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The president of the Philippines has picked yet another fight. Rodrigo Duterte is the president who called for war against drug dealers, encouraged killings and has even boasted of past killings himself. Now, he is fighting a venerated institution - the Catholic Church. Michael Sullivan has the story from Manila.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Philippines has more than a hundred million people. And more than 80 percent of them are Catholic. And the Roman Catholic Church, not a fan of the new president.
BRODERICK PABILLO: I think he's a danger. He's really causing a lot of harm to a lot of people.
SULLIVAN: Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo says that's one reason the church decided to go all in against the extrajudicial killings wrought by Duterte's war in a pastoral letter last month read at sermons across the country, condemning what it called the reign of terror.
PABILLO: We are not declaring war on the war on drugs. We're declaring war on the killings, on the extrajudicial killings.
SULLIVAN: More than 7,500 people have been killed since Duterte took office in June. But criticizing Duterte about that war is like waving a cape in front of a bull.
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PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: I challenge you now. I challenge the Catholic Church. You are full of [expletive], corruption and all - hypocrisy.
SULLIVAN: But the church has been a powerful player in Philippine politics and wants to hold onto that power as a self-perceived voice of the people. The question is can it succeed, especially against the man they call The Punisher?
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).
SULLIVAN: It's 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning. And the sun's not yet up, but it's standing room only at Manila's Santo Nino de Tondo Church.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Over loudspeaker, foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: The church is in one of the city's most densely populated and poorest areas near Manila Bay. And the turnout for Bishop Pabillo's sermon is impressive. But the show of faith belies a larger truth - the church's political influence is on the wane.
JAYEEL CORNELIO: That is true, Michael, that Filipino Catholics do not like it when priests use the pulpit for any political message.
SULLIVAN: Jayeel Cornelio is a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo of Manila University. He says today's Philippines isn't the same one where the church in the form of Cardinal Jaime Sin helped bring down the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
CORNELIO: Because at the time, Cardinal Sin was the antithesis to Ferdinand Marcos. The Catholic Church was the antithesis of the regime. Now the Catholic Church is not seen as that. I think more and more people would like to see the church fulfill its spiritual mandate more than its political mandate.
SULLIVAN: And many Filipino Catholics, Cornelio says, want the church out of their bedrooms, too. The Philippines remains one of the few countries in the world where divorce is illegal and access to birth control contested, despite a 2012 reproductive health law that was supposed to provide the poor free contraceptive services. But the church and other religious groups have vigorously opposed implementation of that law. And that bugs Duterte, too.
RICHARD HEYDARIAN: He's a person who has openly challenged the church in terms of interference in the affairs of the state.
SULLIVAN: Political analyst Richard Heydarian says an executive order signed by Duterte in January is the most recent example.
HEYDARIAN: The Catholic Church was trying its best to sabotage the government's effort to have a much more effective population management program. Now, Duterte comes in and essentially tells them to, you know, bug off. And he move ahead with the reproductive health policy without any concern as far as the backlash of the church.
SULLIVAN: And he doesn't care about any church backlash about his war on drugs, either. As Duterte and the church square off on this and other issues, polls show a majority of Filipinos siding with the president, even as the church struggles to reassert itself and stay relevant in an increasingly secular society. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila.
(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME SONG, "THE SILVER LIVING")
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