Malacañang said that the President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, visited yesterday the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC)’s central office which is located in Quezon City to get to know with the religious group’s leader and “touch base” with the organization’s followers.
Eduardo Manalo, INC’s leader meets Aquino on the eve of the appearance of Chief Justice Renato Corona before the Senate impeachment court, but Malacañang then refused implications that the meeting is about or something to do with the impeachment trial.
Presidential spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda said that, “The purpose of the President is to touch base with his supporters and you don’t need to get the support right now.”
The Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) management is apparently seen lobbying for the release of Corona, whose lead counsel is former justice Serafin Cuevas who is a member of the sect.
“Unfortunately, the schedule of the President and the schedule of Ka Eduardo (Manalo) could not jibe. It was only this Monday or today that they were able to find a common schedule,” Lacierda said. “The unfortunate thing was it was only today that they were able to find a common schedule.” He added.
Lacierda stated that Aquino’s meeting with the Iglesia ni Cristo’s leader was “warm.”
Aquino personally called for the impeachment of Corona in December 2011.
The last time that Aquino had a chance to visit the INC headquarters which was then considered as his first visit as well was before the May 2010 presidential elections when he was still a senator. He was accompanied by his sisters Ballsy Cruz and popular TV talk show host Kris Aquino.
“As you know, the INC supported the President during his senatorial campaign and during also his presidential campaign,” Lacierda recalled.
The spokesman admitted the impeachment trial was discussed, primarily because it was among the “burning issues of the day.”
“He explained to Ka Eduardo the reasons for the impeachment – that this is part of his reform agenda.
“The President only mentioned the reason why there was an impeachment against Chief Justice Corona and he explained his reasons,” he said.
Lacierda similarly modulated the implication of Aquino’s visit to the INC central office at Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City, when he could just have received the religious leader at his office in Malacañang.
“I asked that and the President mentioned it’s always a practice of not only this President but also the other presidents, to visit the head of Iglesia ni Cristo in Central. This is nothing new,” he said.
The other topic discussed, aside from the impeachment according to Lacierda, was the government’s skills development program that will be implemented through the Technical Education Skills Development Authority (TESDA) which is being headed by Joel Villanueva, son of evangelist Bro. Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord Movement, and is said to be an administration senatorial candidate in 2013.
Lacierda rejected allusions that Aquino was seeking for INC’s support for the future candidate, Villanueva.
“It was only a discussion of what the government has been doing. But there’s certainly no way something was discussed about Villanueva,” he said.
“There are certain matters that we do not list out in the schedule,” he added, dismissing the accusations that the administration had not been transparent in its meeting with the INC.
Lacierda also mentioned that he doesn’t consider Roman Catholic priests’ celebration Masses for Corona just to show a support from the Church leadership for the plagued Chief Justice.
“We have no response to that. This is a free country. There’s a separation between Church and State. So let them – if he wants to celebrate Mass for the Chief Justice, by all means. We have no response to that. And obviously, only a Catholic priest can celebrate a Mass, a Catholic Mass. So there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.
He referred to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines saying that they’re not even aware of any official stand of the CBCP regarding Corona’s impeachment.
“They have not released any statement. So we just rely on statements. We don’t rely on individual bishops. As far as we know, they have not published in their website any official position taken by the CBCP,” he said.
Lacierda said they haven’t heard anything from CBCP president Jose Palma “other than those short interviews.”
“But as an official position, we have not seen any official position taken by the CBCP. Any organization can make a position. Right now, it is in the hands of the senator-judges. So let’s wait for the testimony of Chief Justice Corona,” Lacierda said.
There was nothing wrong with regards that the President having a meeting with INC leaders, just for the issue of the prosecution panel in Corona’s impeachment trial.
“It’s not uncommon for presidents to solicit the support of the influential group even harking back to the 1970s,” Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara said.
House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II also defended President Aquino’s visit to the INC.
“There’s nothing wrong about it. He just presented his sentiments on the impeachment of the Chief Justice and his campaign for reforms, which sentiments are known to the public,” he told the reporters.
He said the President’s visit may be compared to Aquino’s past meetings with Catholic bishops at the height of debates on the controversial Reproductive Health bill.
“If there are groups big or small that are holding contrary views, it is not unusual for us politicians to approach them to present to them our side. To ignore them would mean insensitivity on our part,” he said.
“In the case of the Chief Justice, whether there is lobbying or not from any group, we are confident that the strength of the evidence we have presented against him would get him convicted,” Gonzales stressed.
But Zambales Rep. Milagros Magsaysay said Aquino’s visit only showed his insecurity.
“Why is he going out of his way to explain Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment when he should have nothing to do with it in the first place?” Magsaysay said. “He looks so defensive especially when a so-called congressional source said the INC was influencing senator-judges to acquit the Chief Justice.”
No INC meeting
Meanwhile, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile contradicted the reports that he met with any representative of the INC.
“I quarantined myself,” Enrile told reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, for his part, said “lobbying for or against any issue is normal.”
“Whether it is happening I don’t know. I’m one of those who can say nobody had approached me to lobby then and now,” Sotto said.
“That’s part of the normal interaction between politicians and constituents. All sectors whether you are Iglesia or civilian or non-sectarian can talk to both sides,” Sen. Edgardo Angara said.
United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) secretary-general and Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco also denied that the INC was trying to influence senator-judges identified with UNA.
“As the secretary-general of UNA, I would like to state that there is no truth to that rumor. No emissaries from the INC have sent feelers to senator-judges belonging to UNA for the purpose of pleading for the Chief Justice,” Tiangco said in a statement.
“It is disappointing to read of an ‘anonymous’ source trying to besmirch the reputation of both INC and UNA,” he said. “This congressional source insists he remain anonymous while he attempts to discredit UNA and debase the INC.” – With Christina Mendez, Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero, Jose Rodel Clapano
Timeline: Resumption of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona
Day 35 (May 7) The impeachment court allows the defense panel to subpoena Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as “hostile” witness, but two defense witnesses are barred from testifying since their testimonies bore no relevance to the case.
Day 36 (May 8) Chief Justice Renato Corona promises to testify before the Senate impeachment court based on the documents presented to the Office of the Ombudsman on his alleged $10-million bank deposits.
Day 37 (May 14) Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales presents an Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) report, which reveals Corona allegedly had 82 accounts with a “transactional balance” amounting to $10 million, spread out over five banks and not declared in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.
Day 38 (May 15) Ombudsman Morales continues her testimony, saying there were “significant” transactions on Corona’s alleged dollar accounts during the 2004 and 2007 election periods and before the impeachment trial began.
Day 39 (May 16) The defense panel presents three complainants who filed charges against Corona before the Ombudsman in an attempt to show that their claims were baseless. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile compels Kaya Natin! Movement lead convenor Harvey Keh to explain why he should not be cited for contempt for handing over to his office confidential records of Corona’s alleged dollar accounts.
Day 40 (May 22) Corona testifies before the impeachment court.