06/26/2006, 00.00
PHILIPPINES - VATICAN
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Pope has "cordial meeting" with Arroyo who faces impeachment in Manila

The President of the Philippines talked to Benedict XVI about abolition of the death penalty and the project about the Constitution, which she hopes expresses Christian values. But in Manila, there are renewed calls for her removal for the same corruption and fraud charges made last year.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The decision to abolish the death penalty in the Philippines, the project for constitutional reform and "favourable" prospects of dialogue with the Muslim population were discussed by the President of the Republic of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, with Benedict XVI, who received her in an audience this morning. Also today, but in Manila, the opposition presented another call for her impeachment, with the same charges she managed to evade last year: corruption and electoral fraud.

The visit to the Vatican is part of an eight-day Europe trip started by Arroyo yesterday, a day after she signed into law the abolition of the death penalty in the country. Throughout her visit, she will hold official talks with Italian politicians and the Spanish royals. The main focus of her trip is "life, unity and prosperity".

"There is no doubt that the highlight of the visit will be the audience with Benedict XVI, who our president wants to invite to the Philippines as soon as possible," said Ignacio Bunye, Arroyo's secretary for public relations. Arroyo herself told journalists at the airport before her departure: "For the first time, I will meet with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican and will tell him our people's devotion and support for his papacy."

The director of the press office of the Holy See, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, issued a statement about the "cordial meeting" of Benedict XVI with Arroyo, who was accompanied by her family and entourage. Navarro said: "The President showed the Holy Father the new law abolishing the death penalty, signed only last Saturday, on the feast of St John the Baptist. Mrs Macapagal-Arroyo also presented a project of constitutional reform to the pope, which is aimed at more harmonious national development, with special attention reserved for the poorest brackets of the population. During the meeting, reference was also made to favourable prospects of dialogue with the country's Muslim population and to hopes of national pacification. Finally, the President said Christian values, recognized by the majority of Filipinos, find expression and support in state laws."

Notwithstanding the papal audience, Arroyo's trip did not meet the approval of the whole national Church. Mgr Oscar Cruz, archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, said "given that there are questions about the legitimacy of the presidential election, it is not appropriate that Arroyo does to Benedict what she had done with John Paul II." The archbishop was referring to post-electoral statements made by the president, who in 2004, had said her election "had the blessing of John Paul II, the Pope whose heart was arguably closest to Filipinos".

Mgr Cruz said it was "very doubtful" that the Pope, former prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith, would extend his "moral affirmation" to the president, despite the abrogation of the death penalty. He said: "It won't make any difference, given that the government closes its eyes to the kidnapping of activists seeking to improve our country, including Church people." The stand of the bishop of Lingayen-Dagupan reflects that already expressed by the bishop of Novaliches, Mgr Antonio Tobias, who last April celebrated Mass for the birthday of the ex-President Joseph Estrada. During Mass, he "apologized for the Church's participation and support in rallies that led to his resignation".

At the time, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) responded swiftly: two days later, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, published a statement saying "the bishops have nothing to apologize to Estrada for" and "if any bishop said different, he was doing so on a personal basis".

AsiaNews sources in the Philippines said on that occasion, the Apostolic Nunciature also intervened – although it was in a situation of interregnum at the time, owing to the appointment of the new Nuncio, Mgr Filoni – to remind bishops of the call of John Paul II to "keep out of the country's politics".

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