Filipino priests back rival Marcos in high-stakes election campaign

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Manila (AFP) – Hundreds of Filipino priests backed the main rival of the former dictator’s son Ferdinand Marcos on Thursday, days before a presidential election they called a “battle for the soul” of the nation.

About 200 clergy from the deeply Catholic country have joined the growing number of priests publicly backing Leni Robredo, who is trailing far behind Ferdinand Marcos Junior ahead of Monday’s vote.

The election is considered one of the most important in Philippine history – a potentially watershed moment for the fledgling democracy.

The clergy group called it a “battle for the soul” of the nation – a choice between the rule of law and “diminishing our freedoms”.

Marcos Jr has a seemingly unassailable double-digit lead, gaining wide support by forging alliances with several of the country’s rival political dynasties.

But his juggernaut campaign has been propelled by social media misinformation seeking to rewrite the history of his father’s brutal reign.

Up to 50,000 people were detained during martial law that lasted from 1972 to 1981, as the elder Marcos and his wife Imelda became synonymous with authoritarian kleptocracy.

Imelda, now 92, is seen as a driving force behind the family’s public rehabilitation and rebranding of this era as the Philippines’ “golden age”.

After six years of authoritarian rule by President Rodrigo Duterte, critics doubt Marcos Jr’s commitment to democracy. And they fear his rule will further degrade human rights and deepen corruption.

Marcos Jr has previously expressed his support for “the healthy exercise of democracy”.

The country’s highly influential Catholic Church has so far not taken an official position in the upcoming elections.

Bishop Pablo David urged voters to support “candidates who will support and strengthen our democracy, uphold the rule of law and respect the dignity and rights of human beings.”

But he stopped short of naming names or endorsing one candidate over another.

With a Marcos victory increasingly likely, individual members of the clergy are speaking out.

On Wednesday, a separate group of 1,400 Catholic clerics — including more than a dozen bishops — signed a statement backing Robredo’s campaign.

Describing the election as “critical”, the group said the contrast in morality between the leading candidates meant they could “no longer remain neutral or apolitical”.

Without naming Marcos Jr by name, they denounced “false, misleading and manipulative allegations that aim to revise the history of our country”.

“Years of Darkness”

Father Flavie Villanueva – a priest who has received death threats and been charged with sedition for his criticism of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs – said the church had an obligation to speak out.

“We cannot stay in the dark about what is happening around us,” he told AFP. “We have a moral obligation to act as the conscience of the people.”

He warned that electing “thieves and murderers” would cast “years of darkness over the Philippines”.

Ferdinand Marcos Junior has a seemingly unassailable double-digit lead in the polls ahead of the presidential vote JAM STA ROSA AFP/File

About 80% of Filipinos are Catholic and the faith permeates daily life.

Religious TV shows are ubiquitous and divorce remains illegal.

The church played a crucial role in the 1986 “People Power” revolution that overthrew the Marcos regime.

The church’s Veritas radio urged Filipinos to take to the streets in protest.

But it is unlikely to receive institution-wide approval.

Villanueva said the situation in the Philippines was so serious that Pope Francis should intervene. “I pray that he does,” he said.

Many Filipinos believe Pope Francis has already done this, with a slew of misleading social media posts falsely claiming he supported Marcos Jr.

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