MANILA, Philippines -- President Benigno S. Aquino III met yesterday with Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) Executive Minister Eduardo Manalo to ''touch base'' and explain his position on the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Aquino met with Manalo a day before Corona testifies at the impeachment trial in the Senate.
Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the President sought a ''private meeting'' with Manalo at the INC Central Office in Quezon City, saying it was ''not uncommon'' for Aquino to reach out to his supporters.
But Lacierda made it clear that the meeting has ''nothing to do'' with recent reports that the religious group was lobbying for Corona's acquittal.
The meeting was ''not done on a whim'' and was arranged before the Holy Week, but it was only yesterday that the Aquino and Manalo had a common schedule, Lacierda told reporters in a press conference in Malacañang.
''The purpose of the President's meeting was to touch base with Ka Eduardo and the Iglesia ni Cristo. As you know, the Iglesia ni Cristo supported the President during his senatorial campaign and during also his presidential campaign,'' Lacierda said.
''The impeachment was discussed because it's one of the burning issues of the day. The President explained to Ka Eduardo the reasons for the impeachment-that this is part of his reform agenda,'' he said.
Asked if the President was seeking the support of the INC for the impeachment of Corona, Lacierda reiterated: ''The purpose of the President is to touch base with supporters. And you don't need to get their support right now. The decision is not being made by the President. He is not going to rule on the fate of the Chief Justice. It's going to be the senators.''
Lacierda said he does not know if Aquino got an assurance from Manalo that the INC was not lobbying senator-judges to acquit Corona. Lacierda maintained that the Palace doesn't believe that there was such a lobby.
Lacierda said the President was pleased with the outcome of the meeting. He acknowledged that the President's relationship with the INC remains ''warm.''
Apart from the impeachment issue, he said the President also highlighted the programs of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) particularly for the youth during his meeting with Manalo.
The meeting between the President and the INC leader was not included in Aquino's official schedule on Monday. The media got wind of Aquino's meeting when his presidential convoy traveled to the INC headquarters in Quezon City.
Lacierda acknowledged that the President usually have private meetings or engagements that are not announced to the press.
Asked if the President will also meet with other religious leaders to explain his position on the impeachment trial of Corona, Lacierda said he could not yet confirm the President's schedule.
But he noted that President has met with some Catholic Church leaders on pressing issues, such as the responsible parenthood measure, in the past.
The spokesman said Aquino will likely watch the trial if he is not too busy.
Emerging yesterday from a caucus, Senate Majority Leader Vicente 'Tito' Sotto III, said senators sitting as judges in the trial agreed to strictly adhere to the rules of the Senate, including the ''two-minute rule'' in questioning Corona, whom the defense said is their last witness.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile ''exhorted us to (strictly) follow the rules of the Senate and to avoid statements that would evolve into a controversy,'' Sotto said.
He added that anyone causing any distraction or commotion in the courtroom would be dealt with by the Senate Sergeant-At-Arms.
''Any rowdy, jeering, or untoward behavior would not be tolerated and by order of the Senate president they would be removed (from the gallery),'' Sotto said.
He said the senators are even willing to conduct the hearing past 10 p.m.
Corona has agreed to finally testify before the Senate impeachment court in order to clear himself from accusations that he has several hidden dollar account in which he has deposited at least $10 million.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, testifying last week as a hostile witness, said the documents pertaining to Corona's alleged hidden deposits came from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).
The Chief Justice's testimony is considered as high point of trial that began on January 16,2012.
Sotto said the prosecution will have no time limit when it cross-examines Corona who was impeached last December 12, 2011 by about 189 members of the House of Representatives.
He estimated that Corona's testimony could be finished in two days as long as the rules are strictly observed.
Senators want to finish the trial before the end of this month since Congress is set to adjourn sine die on June 7.
Yesterday, Corona's lawyers gave a glimpse of the preparations he is making for his appearance in court.
''We are ready to face the (House) prosecutors. We're ready to lock horns with them. We are prepared. We're willing to go 12 rounds against them. And as far as with the senator-judges (are concerned) we've started praying-hopefully, they would be kinder, gentler to us,'' Rico Paolo Quicho, one of the defense panel's spokespersons said during the defense's press briefing at the Philippine Columbian in Paco, Manila.
''Because we cannot really object to their questions. So we are just hoping for fairness. And we're just hoping that they would wake up at the right side of the bed this morning,'' Quicho said.
No rehearsals were made so far in preparation for Corona's impeachment, but Corona is prepared and focused on answering all possible questions that may be thrown his way, Karen Jimeno, another spokesperson for the defense, said.
Corona is gearing up for the prospect that questions regarding his wife's family-owned corporation, the Basa-Guidote Enterprises Inc. (BGEI) would crop up during the trial, apart from his purported 82 dollar accounts in which he allegedly owned multi-million dollars.
Corona himself is in high spirits, sharing jokes in certain light moments while having a meeting with his lawyers.
Senate Sergeant at arms Jose V. Balajadia said an undetermined number of policemen will beef up the 150-man Senate security force this afternoon.
The Senate expects demonstrators for and against Corona to rally near the Senate building in Pasay City.
The United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), meanwhile, has vehemently denied reports that the INC is attempting to influence its member senators to acquit Corona.
UNA Secretary General, Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco said in a statement that ''no emissaries from the INC have sent feelers to senator-judges belonging to UNA for the purpose of pleading for the acquittal of the Chief Justice in the Senate impeachment court.
UNA, which is a coalition of the Vice President Jejomar C. Binay's Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) and former President Joseph Estrada's Puwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) has Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, and Senator Jinggoy Estrada.
(Additional report by Rolly T. Carandang, Hannah L. Torregoza, Mario B. Casayuran and JC Bello Ruiz)