[PHOTO -Despite his ties to the Aquino Family, Lingayen, Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas reminded President Benigno Simeon Aquino III that his administration’s “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” slogan should not mean to say “kung walang anak, walang mahirap.”]

MANILA, FEBRUARY 1, 2013 (MANILA TIMES) Catholic bishops in the Philippines vowed Tuesday to vigorously campaign against politicians who ignored their "moral" teachings, after the church failed to stop the passage of a birth control law.

The powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said it had decided to target suspect politicians in mid-term elections in May, when thousands of posts from the local village level to congress will be contested.

In a statement following their annual plenary, the bishops said they would demand politicians publicly voice their views on critical social issues, ranging from same-sex marriage and divorce to contraceptives and corruption.

"We will force them to walk the talk and state their positions on the moral stance of the church, as well as their convictions on how they will run the country," said Francis Lucas, who heads the group's media unit.

"We will bring it out to the people and we will tell them to choose based on the answers. If a politician refuses to make a stand, that will be taken very negatively."

More than 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholics, a legacy of over 300 years of Spanish rule that ended in the late 1800s, and the church has long enjoyed strong political influence.

The church helped lead peaceful uprisings that removed two corrupt presidents, Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001.

However CBCP president Archbishop Jose Palma conceded the church may be starting to lose some of its influence.

"We are tossed about by the waves of the secularist spirit, which continues to reduce the role and place of religious faith in the public sphere," Palma said.

"Our cherished moral and spiritual values are at grave risk."


In this light, the church intended to step up its efforts to pressure politicians during the election campaign.

The church will only support "election of candidates who are upright and guided by moral teachings of the church", said Bishop Gabriel Reyes, another senior member of the conference.

He said church members would not be forced to vote as a bloc, but would be told to carefully scrutinise candidates.

Reyes said among the key issues was whether politicians supported the birth control law, which was approved by parliament last year and officially took effect this month.

The law requires state health centres to hand out free condoms and birth control pills and mandates that sex education be taught in schools.


Philippines Adopts Contraception Law By RHEA SANDIQUE-CARLOS

MANILA—The Roman Catholic Church lost a skirmish Saturday in its fight to keep the Philippines a bastion of the traditional family when President Benigno Aquino III signed into a law a bill that promotes contraception and sex education in schools. But religious leaders were already looking ahead to battling the measure in the courts while drawing a red line on an even bigger potential battle—divorce.

On Saturday, a deputy presidential spokeswoman confirmed in a statement that Mr. Aquino had quietly signed the act into law on Dec. 21, and it will take effect in January, guaranteeing contraceptives will be available to the poorest Filipinos.

Mr. Aquino's backers say the bill, which had been stalled in the legislature for 14 years, marks a significant attempt to bring down the country's soaring population growth. The Philippines has the highest birthrate in Southeast Asia, and its population has risen to more than 100 million today from 60.7 million in 1990.

Opponents of the family-planning measure—also known as the reproductive-health, or RH, bill—say it will divide the deeply religious country and pave the way for divorce legislation, which is also opposed by the church.

"The constitution states that the government should protect the family and marriage. The RH bill is against the goodness of family and the stability of marriage," said Bishop Gabriel Reyes, chairman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines' Commission on Family and Life.

Even boxer and congressman Manny Pacquiao, fresh from what he described as a near-death-experience in a Las Vegas knockout, spoke against the bill citing ``the sanctity of life.'' Senator Pia Cayetano, the main proponent of the family-planning bill, has called for congress to start debates on divorce law, while another lawmaker, Luz Ilagan, has filed a bill introducing divorce that is now under committee review. Church leaders are already mounting a counterattack, arguing that pushing a divorce law could further divide the country after the bitter debates over the family-planning bill.

The Philippines is the only Catholic-majority country besides the Vatican not to allow divorce. Since the 1970s, shifting social attitudes have spurred other Catholic-majority countries to legalize divorce, including Italy, Ireland, and those in Latin America.

The church, though, has held an especially influential role in the Philippines, where about 75% of its 104 million citizens are Catholic. The clergy played an important role in supporting popular revolts that swept former President Ferdinand Marcos from office in 1986, and curtailed the presidency of Joseph Estrada in 2001. The faith is also a defining point of national pride for many Filipinos as the Philippines is the only Catholic-majority country in Asia.

Analysts say any progress on a divorce measure would depend heavily on whether President Aquino, the son of late president and stanch Catholic Corazon Aquino, would endorse such a legislative measure. At the moment, he is riding high, buoyed by strong economic growth rates and high approval ratings.

"The approval (of the family-planning measure) strengthens the political stock of the president," said political analyst Prospero De Vera, a professor at the University of the Philippines. "The expectation was that he would act exactly as his mother, but he has been showing an independent streak. That must be to the Church's frustration."

Father Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines' Commission on Family and Life, insists there is no need to enact a law on divorce. "We should protect the sanctity of the marriage, as marriage is a life-long commitment. Any marital problem cannot be solved by divorce. What will solve it is finding the root cause of the problem," Rev. Castro said.

Meanwhile, the tussle over the family-planning measure is far from over. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said a group of Catholic lawyers will challenge the law before the supreme court on the grounds that it is against the constitution, which states that family is the basic unit of society.

Many Filipinos agree with the Aquino administration's efforts to address high population growth and reduce poverty. A survey conducted by Manila-based polling group Pulse Asia in 2010 showed 69% of respondents backing the legislation.

Still, the manner in which Mr. Aquino signed the family planning legislation—quietly in his study rather than in a ceremony—suggests he hasn't come out swinging just yet.

Filipino activist faces jail for offending church Published on 28 January 2013

MANILA: A social activist in the Catholic Philippines said Monday he faced up to 13 months in jail after being found guilty of "offending religious beliefs" for speaking out in favour of birth control.

Carlos Celdran, who is also one of the country's most popular tour guides, was arrested in 2010 after entering the historic Manila Cathedral during a mass and shouting out his support for efforts to introduce a birth control law.

He released a copy of a Manila court's verdict, delivered last month but only made public on Monday, in which he was sentenced to between two and 13 months for offending religious beliefs.

Celdran said he would appeal against the court's decision, describing the authorities' use of the little-known and rarely used law as a threat to freedom of speech.

"I am calm but I am going to fight this till the end," Celdran said in a statement posted on social media alongside a copy of the court's decision. Celdran remains free on bail, pending his appeal.

International rights monitor Human Rights Watch said it was alarmed by the use of an "archaic" law to prosecute Celdran.

"This is a setback for free speech in the Philippines, which prides itself on being a democracy," Human Rights Watch Asia researcher Carlos Conde said in a statement.

The proposed law that Celdran spoke out in favour of during his protest was eventually approved by parliament last year and came into effect on January 17.

The law requires government health centres to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, benefiting tens of millions of the country's poor who would not otherwise be able to afford or have access to them.

It also mandates that sex education be taught in schools.

Catholic Church groups have filed petitions with the Supreme Court, asking it to overturn the law.

About 80 percent of the Philippines' 100 million people are Catholic, a legacy of Spanish colonial rule that ended in the late 1800s, and the church remains one of the nation's most powerful institutions.

Officials at the court that handed down the verdict were not immediately available to comment.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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