Church leaders wield power in Philippine elections

Posted at 05/05/10 2:49 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Church leaders in the deeply religious Philippines  are courting controversy as they step out of their pulpits and into the political ring ahead of next week's national elections.

Flamboyant preachers are claiming God has told them whom their followers should vote for, while Catholic priests are quietly using the elections to pressure politicians on sensitive social issues such as birth control.

"We have a lot of respect for church officials but we know they're not perfect... they are political players too," said Congressman Raymond Palatino, who has been targeted by religious groups for promoting contraception.

The Philippine Constitution provides for separation of church and state but, with about 90% of the 94 million Filipinos being Christian, church men make no apologies for wanting to lead their flock on political issues.

The most visible religious leader in politics is TV evangelist Brother Eddie Villanueva, who is making a second run for the presidency.

"Nowhere in the constitution does it prohibit a righteous God-loving Filipino from offering public service," Villanueva told Agence France-Presse in a recent interview.

He stressed his campaign was not tied into his Pentecostal ministry, pointing to the presence of Muslims and people from other denominations in his party.

But asked why he was running, he reverted to his religious roots.

"The Bible says remove the wicked including the corrupt from the king's throne so the government will be based on righteousness," Villanueva said.

Villanueva appears to have no chance of winning Monday's presidential election, as he is running fifth in opinion surveys with single-digit support.

But he has appeared alongside the major presidential candidates in nationally televised debates throughout the campaign, while other preachers have wielded influence in other ways.

Popular preachers Mike Velarde of the "El Shaddai" fellowship and Apollo Quiboloy of the "Kingdom of Jesus Christ" sect have demanded attention from presidential candidates by telling their millions of followers for whom to vote.

Nearly all the presidential candidates have made pilgrimages to see the two preachers, hoping to get their blessings.

Quiboloy, who is the self-proclaimed "Appointed Son of God", angrily scolded presidential front-runner Benigno Aquino after he failed to show up at one of his events. A contrite Aquino apologized profusely.

Apparently this was not enough as Quiboloy last week said he had spoken with God and had decided to endorse former defense secretary Gilberto Teodoro as his chosen presidential candidate.

However Aquino on Tuesday won the endorsement of an even more influential group -- Iglesia Ni Cristo, or Chapel of Christ.

Iglesia is a homegrown, fundamentalist sect established in 1914 that has about 6 million members and requires its followers to vote only for the candidates named by its leaders.

Aquino's followers celebrated Iglesia's endorsement, which could deliver him as many as 2 million votes, immediately posting the news on social network sites such as Facebook.

"That's victory for us," one Aquino fan wrote on Facebook in reaction to the endorsement.

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform think-tank, said politicians could not ignore the sects because of their potential to influence tight elections.

But he said that church leaders were not as important politically as they believed, or hoped, themselves to be.

He cited the case of movie star Joseph Estrada, who won the presidential elections in 1998 despite openly engaging in womanizing, drinking and gambling.

"The Catholic church openly campaigned against him (but) he won by a landslide," Casiple said.

Nevertheless, priests in the Roman Catholic church, which counts 80% of Filipinos as its followers, are advising people not to vote for candidates who support birth control.

Congressman Palatino said he personally felt the church's wrath because of his support for family planning.

"I received hate letters, e-mails and faxes condemning me, saying I have no right to be a representative," he said.