Filipino Catholic Church within inches of endorsing Aquino

Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila came very close to endorsing the candidacy of Corazon Aquino and denouncing the campaign of President Ferdinand Marcos in a press conference Wednesday morning. Describing the Feb. 7 election as the ``most crucial in the nation's history,'' Cardinal Sin, the Roman Catholic prelate of the Philippines, expressed his fear of widespread fraud and made it clear that any electoral manipulation would be the work of the ruling party.

``The election will be clean, Mr. President -- if you want it to be clean,'' Sin said in an opening statement. The opposition, he told journalists, could not commit electoral abuse because it had ``no power, no facilities, and no money.''

Sin's blunt comments reflect his own growing activism -- and that of the Catholic Church hierarchy as a whole -- in the election.

``Never has there been a Philippine election where the hierarchy has participated as much as this,'' wrote Teodoro Bacani, the auxiliary bishop of Manila, in the latest edition of the Manila archdiocese's magazine. ``Bishops now portray the coming election as a struggle between the forces of good and evil.''

In his statement yesterday, the cardinal spoke glowingly of Mrs. Aquino, but was cool in his references to Mr. Marcos.

Aquino, he said, had shown herself to be spontaneous, simple, straightforward, and honest in the course of the campaign. ``If elected, she will also make a good president.''

Her windup rally Tuesday, which drew hundreds of thousands of participants, was a ``very beautiful indication of the feelings of the people,'' the cardinal said. Speaking before Marcos's final rally, Sin said it would be different from the Aquino rally of the night before. It will not be ``extemporaneous or spontaneous. And they [the participants] will be paid,'' he said.

Sin's blunt words were all the more surprising because his aides view him as a cautious and essentially conservative prelate. For many years after the declaration of martial law in 1972, he was content to preach ``critical collaboration'' with the Marcos government. Many clergy and laity accused him of leaning more toward collaboration than criticism.

Now, a close adviser says, he seems more determined. ``He's fed up,'' the advisor said. ``He's had it up to here,'' he continued, pointing to his neck. The adviser added, however, that the cardinal has in the past sometimes followed an outspoken statement with a milder poition.

The church's position has hardened rapidly. While individual bishops have in the past taken more radical political positions than that of the present hierarchy, it is rare to see both the cardinal and his bishops act so unanimously.

The church says its position is based not on a choice of personalities but on a choice between good and evil. ``When it comes to evil, we cannot be neutral,'' said Bishop Bacani.

Sin's aides, however, make it clear that the President embodies the evil of which they speak. ``There is no question in my mind that Marcos is evil,'' said one of the cardinal's closest aides.

Last week, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines issued a joint exhortation warning of a ``conspiracy of evil'' and calling on the military and other key government officials not to be party to fraud. The bishops are due to have another special meeting on or before Feb. 13 to discuss their response to the elections. Church sources do not rule out the possibility that the bishops will endorse a call for civil disobedience if they feel the election has been won by unfair means.

The Catholic Church's main official activity in the election revolves around Namfrel, the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections. The movement is headed by Joe Concepcion, a close friend of the cardinal. In many areas, the local bishops are Namfrel's provincial chairmen, with priests or nuns forming the backbone of the local organizations. And Namfrel's tabulation of election results is being conducted in a large Catholic school in the capital.

Sin and other church leaders have told the clergy not to use the pulpit for partisan political purposes. Church sources say, however, that many clergy have made clear their support for Aquino. A prominent Jesuit, the president of the Ateneo de Manila University, helps write Aquino's speeches. Another Jesuit is working on contingency plans for post-election activities if the opposition decides that the election was stolen. Few priests seem to be openly supporting the President.

Sin has been unusually active behind the scenes in recent months:

He did his best to encourage the two main opposition leaders -- Aquino and Salvador Laurel, her running mate -- to form a united presidential ticket.

He has established close links with members of the armed forces reform group. He has promised them his support in the event of reprisals against them.

And Wednesday, he expressed his regret that the group had been unable to hold some of the prayer rallies they had planned as part of a campaign to keep the military neutral in the elections.

``Praying for clean and honest elections is banned by the military,'' the cardinal noted acidly.

Aides say that his role could become even more important after the election. Since the August 1983 assassination of Aquino's husband, Benigno, the cardinal and Gen. Fidel Ramos, armed forces assistant chief of staff, have become close, a Sin aide says. General Ramos reportedly often attends meetings of the cardinal's close advisers.

If there are major protests after an apparently fraudulent election, a Sin aide said, the cardinal could perhaps persuade Ramos, who commands the 40,000-man Philippine constabulary, not to use force against the demonstrators.

``I don't think Ramos would get involved in any repressive measures,'' the aide said. ``The cardinal would prevail on him not to do so.''

While most of the bishops have kept close to the center of the political spectrum, many rank-and-file religious and lay workers have gravitated toward the communist underground. Sin implied yesterday that an opposition victory would short-circuit the political polarization that was dividing the country and his church. He referred back to the electoral victory of Ramon Magsaysay, who in the 1950s defeated a notoriously corrupt incumbent. After that, he said, the communist-led insurgents who were the forerunners of the present guerrillas came down from the hills and surrendered. ``This will happen again,'' he told correspondents.

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