Philippine churches take sides

President Estrada, whose impeachment continues today, is supported by charismatic sects.

Swaying umbrellas, like a field of mushrooms in the wind, spread across the muddy plain as far as the eye can see. It's a rainy night, but the tail end of a typhoon doesn't keep tens of thousands from showing up at the regular weekend prayer rally of El Shaddai.

While tens of thousands of protesters encircle the nearby Senate for the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada, the El Shaddai gathering may still be the best-attended show in town. The charismatic Catholic movement, a relatively new thread in the religious fabric of this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, has taken an opposing view from the mainstream church.

Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin called on Mr. Estrada to resign in October, following allegations that the president enriched himself with illegal gambling funds and tobacco taxes. (On Friday, the prosecution tried to establish a paper trail of checks and deposit slips that led indirectly to Estrada, and a witness also implicated his son, Jinggoy.)

But the founder of El Shaddai, real estate developer and lay preacher Mariano Velarde - known simply as "Brother Mike" - has gone against the grain of the established church by maintaining his support for Estrada and calling on the faithful to withhold judgment, and ultimately, to forgive.

Ever since Spanish conquerors arrived more than 400 years ago, religion has played an important role in public life here. Cardinal Sin was one of the leaders of the "people power" pro-democracy revolution that eventually overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Today, however, the religious map is more diverse, and the controversy over Estrada's presidency has galvanized people behind vying religious leaders. The result, some here worry, is a sort of intra-denominational conflict that could polarize Filipinos as the trial wears on.

The Catholic church has been pressuring Mr. Velarde to drop his backing for the president. The Rev. Robert Reyes, chaplain of the University of the Philippines, told reporters that he heard Sin threaten Velarde with excommunication if he did not forgo support for Estrada. That has the faithful of El Shaddai - mostly poorer people from slums and provincial areas - feeling that the cardinal is plunging the Catholic Church into the political morass.

"What Cardinal Sin wants is to be followed, and he thinks he's the only one who knows what's right," says Impario Zulata, an older woman who says that her diabetes was cured after she was anointed and blessed by Velarde. "Brother Mike has principles, but he does not impose his beliefs on others."

As she talks, she and other women wearing "volunteer" tags are handing out envelopes to passersby. Worshippers are encouraged to put in a request to God and a donation. Velarde, says one of the women, has a better chance of getting their prayers answered. "God," says Nona Baldin, "is using Brother Mike like Moses."

Nearby, a young man says he quit his job to become an El Shaddai preacher to street children. Brother Mike's teachings encouraged him to give up the drinking, smoking, and hanging around that characterized his teenage years. "He is a gifted man," says Narciso Dengano.

"We don't actually support politicians," says Mr. Dengano, directing traffic on the ring road of the massive gathering, where booths lit by paraffin lamps sell everything from scarves to healing potions with the El Shaddai - the short translation is "God Almighty" in Hebrew - logo on them. "But even the cardinal says that you should not judge, unless you have no sins," he says. " 'He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.'"

THE group has begun to have a wider impact. It has its own radio, television station, and magazines. Claiming between 8 million and 10 million followers in 30 countries, and drawing in Filipinos who work overseas, it is the largest alternative movement in the Philippines.

But government watchdogs look suspiciously on Velarde as a spiritual adviser to the president. According to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Estrada government has given 1.5 billion pesos ($30 million) to Velarde's real estate company. Others say Velarde has enriched himself with unreported donations that often come from those who have little to spare. Regular members are asked to give 10 percent of their salaries to El Shaddai.

The head of El Shaddai's media ministry, Mel Robles, says that it is a movement that inspires, reports its income, and has no interest in politics. "El Shaddai is a charismatic movement which is involved in the renewal of the church," says Mr. Robles. "There was really no effort to make this grow ... but that's due to the charisma of Brother Mike and the comfort people find in his words."

All the money that comes into El Shaddai goes back out to the poor, he says. And despite the sense of tension surrounding Estrada, he says that El Shaddai "has been thanked for staving off conversions," referring to the archbishop's concern over Protestant churches attracting new members from among disillusioned Catholics.

"Brother Mike has been tasked to be the spiritual adviser to the president, and he has to remain faithful. He says, 'You cannot ask him to resign. You have to guide [Estrada] back,' " explains Robles. The cardinal, he points out, hasn't declared his denunciation of Estrada a must-do for all Catholics. "It's up to each person's conscience to decide."

The mainstream Catholic Church, however, says that Sin saw it as his moral obligation to call for Estrada's resignation. "We all want to see a cleansing process in this country," says Linda Montayre, a leader of the People's Consultative Assembly, a Catholic Church-affiliated alliance of anti-Estrada groups. "People were willing to tolerate Estrada for his mistresses and his drinking, despite his incompetence and negligence. But the moment it was exposed that he was robbing the people, they got angry."

Where that anger may vent is unclear. The trial may continue through the end of January, and each group of faithful is trying to appear to pray a little louder and larger than the other.

"The despair with government has been transformed into a hope of redemption from God," says one political observer. "The competition between religious groups has exploded into a competition of whose side you're on."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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