Catholic Church seeks to regain power in Philippines

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In cathedrals around the Philippines, huge black and red banners are asking the faithful to choose between "Team Life" and "Team Death", with priests warning the nation's soul is at stake.

The signs are part of efforts by the Catholic Church to assert influence at next week's mid-term elections, with politicians who supported a birth control law passed by Congress last year blackmarked as part of "Team Death".

Bishop Vicente Navarra of Bacolod City in the central Philippines, who pioneered the use of the "Team Life-Team Death" banners, said he believed the law had opened the door to worse social ills.

"We know it (birth control) will just snowball later on. After this, they will file bills for divorce, euthanasia, abortion, homosexual marriages, so it will be death," Navarra told AFP.

The Catholic Church has for centuries enjoyed immense political as well as social power in the Philippines, a former Spanish colony. Roughly 80 percent of Filipinos still count themselves as members of the faith.

Church leaders played a crucial role in toppling dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and pressure from the clergy has ensured that the Philippines remains the only country where divorce is illegal.

For more than a decade the Church also successfully derailed campaigns for parliament to pass a birth control bill that would have mandated that the government hand out free contraceptives and sex education be taught in schools.

But despite another intense church campaign, the landmark law was finally passed late last year.

The Supreme Court in March suspended the law until judges hears arguments from Catholic groups that have filed petitions arguing it is unconstitutional.

But the legislative defeat for the Church highlighted what many believe is its waning influence in Philippine society.

Surveys over many years have consistently shown overwhelming public backing for the birth control law, while support for divorce is also on the rise.

A survey in 2011 by the Social Weather Stations, one of the Philippines' top two polling groups, found that 50 percent of Filipinos believed divorce should be legalised, up from 29 percent a decade earlier.

Another survey in February this year by the Social Weather Stations also found waning religiosity among those who classify themselves as Catholics, with only 29 percent considering themselves "very religious".

Weekly church attendance has also fallen sharply, from 64 percent of Catholic adults in 1991 to 37 percent this year, according to the survey.

Political scientist Edna Co, from the state-run University of the Philippines, said many Filipinos had come to believe they could still be good Catholics while being less obedient to its teachings.

"Some people are thinking more independently these days, regardless of the Catholic Church," she said.

"There is a line drawn between your faith and a social issue: that is how a lot of Filipino Catholics think."

Father Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines' commission on family life, blamed mass media and the Internet for weakening church influence on Filipinos.

"Just imagine what they hear or what they read: the values or lack of values they imbibe. They go to church only once a week... but compare that to the time they spend on the Internet or with traditional media," he told AFP.

The Church's campaigning against pro-birth control politicians ahead of the mid-term elections is an effort to claw back some of its lost power, according to Ana Maria Tabunda, chief researcher at Pulse Asia, a respected think tank.

"Can the Church affect the vote on the national level? That is what they want to show through this campaign, to recover some of that influence over the legislators," she said.

Another part of the campaign is a "White Vote Movement" asking candidates to sign a "covenant" not to support divorce and birth control in exchange for getting their endorsement to win votes from the faithful.

Bishops and priests are also delivering sermons steeped in politics, while other church leaders are actively campaigning.

At a parish centre of a small church in a Manila suburb, Anna Cosio, 24, secretary of Catholic Vote Philippines, recently lectured the faithful on why they should vote according to "non-negotiable ethical principles".

"It is our duty to infuse the political life of our country with our Christian values," she told parishioners while delivering a powerpoint presentation detailing what she said were the dangers of contraceptives.

Tabunda, from Pulse Asia, said the Church would likely not have a great impact on the national posts at the mid-term elections, although it could expect to wield strong influence on local posts in towns that are more devout.

As she stepped out of a Manila church after Sunday mass, retired civil servant Minnie Nicholas, 62, told AFP she considered herself a devout Catholic and an active parishioner.

But when asked if the birth control issue would influence her voting, she laughed and asked: "How is that related to running a country?"

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