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Donna S. Cueto (PDI, March 15, 1998)

ELECTION officials were warned yesterday they were courting another People Power revolt with their decision to ban Catholic priests and nuns from joining the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections and taking part in its pollwatching and quick-count activities.

"The ban is a direct threat to democracy, and the religious are prepared to fight it," said Sr. Roseanne Mallilin, executive director of VOTECARE.

"Another Edsa (revolt) is bound to happen," she said. "It is not just an issue of the Comelec anymore. but an issue for the entire citizenry, for democracy."

She added: "We will not take this sitting down. If it means going back to another Edsa scenario, we'll stand up to the challenge. By the grace of God, we will do it again."

She said the country's bishops, priests and other religious workers were committed to guarding the polls and ensuring clean and credible elections in May, and not even the Comelec could stop them.

With the celebration of the Philippine Centennial, Namfrel members, including the religious sector, feel that their work has gained an added meaning because they consider it also as a fight for freedom and democracy, Mallilin said.

She asserted that it was not the religious who were violating the doctrine on the separation of Church and State doctrine but the Comelec, which she said went overboard in restricting their nonpartisan activities.

A Namfrel official said they were puzzled because it was the first time that the ban was imposed since 1984, when Namfrel was first accredited by the Comelec as an election watchdog.

Guillermo Luz, Namfrel secretary general and executive director of the Makati Business Club, said the ban on the religious would cripple Namfrel and could result in less-than-credible elections.

About 50 percent of Namfrel's 110 local chapters are headed by members of the clergy. Half of its 400,000 volunteers are members of religious groups.

"There is a real threat of a political and economic crisis if the outcome of the elections is less than credible," Luz warned.

He said Namfrel was prepared to submit weekly financial reports to the Comelec as it had required, since the group had nothing to hide with respect to its funding sources.

'We have no foreign funding. All of the donations come from the private sector -- 100-percent homegrown, all-Filipino." he said.

Namfrel is trying to raise P24 million for its quickcount operations.

Vicente Jayme, Namfrel vice chair, said the Comelec was sending signals that disturb the political and ecenomic scene.

"Considering what this election means to our country and to our people, one would think that (the Comelec officials) would welcome the help of anyone, particularly the religious (sector), which still has credibility, to ensure elections are guarded," he said.

He said Namfrel and the religious sector were puzzled about Comelec's motive for imposing the ban.

The poll body was also criticized for observing a double standard" by being lenient on approving petitions of political parties and turning a blind eye to their violations of election rules. while imposing strict conditions of Namfrel.

Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a member of the 1987 Constitutional Convention, called the ban "unconstutional."

"The Comelec is revealing itself more and more," he said.

He said the Comelec could justify the ban if, it could show it was intended to meet a "clear and present danger of a substantive evil."

"But what is the evil they are trying to prevent? It seems to me they are trying to prevent credilble elections," Bernas said during a Namfrel forum Friday.

On Monday, Comelec is expected to discuss a motion for reconsideration filed by Namfrel's acting chair, former Supreme Court Justice Jose Feria.

It will also take up a memorandum filed by Commissioner Teresita Flores asking the poll body to reconsider its decision on three points.

She had asked the commission, sitting en banc, to delete the provisions on the clergy ban, the requirement of a written report of Namfrel's operations and financial accounts and the condition that Namfrel cannot change officials without the Comelec's prior approval.

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Christian Action for Peaceful and Meaningful Elections
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Tel. No. 924-4951 local 3588, Fax No. 924-4442

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