Religious leaders call for resignation of Philippine president

Pope Francis smiles as Philippines' President Benigno Aquino talks to him upon his arrival at Villamor Air Base for a state and pastoral visit, in Manila January 15, 2015.(Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro)

Religious leaders in the Philippines are asking President Benigno Aquino III to step down from office following a deadly clash that resulted in the death of 44 members of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force in Mamasapano,  Maguindanao on January 25.

According to a statement released by the National Transformation Council (NTC) - a group composed of Catholic church and Protestant church leaders - the aftermath of the Mamasapano encounter makes the President's resignation more "urgent and imperative."

"We, bishops of the Catholic and other Christian churches, have often been asked if there is moral basis to this growing demand. Even long before the unfortunate events, the National Transformation Council (NTC) has strongly articulated that the President step down. Recent developments have made the call even more urgent and imperative," stated the group.

The NTC cited the President's "mishandling" of his responsibilities as commander in chief and added that the country needs a fresh start in order to effect reform in government.

In their statement, the NTC lamented the Mamasapano incident, which saw a bloody encounter between government forces and operatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).  The fighting broke out as the SAF team, acting on intelligence information, was attempting to capture notorious terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir aka Marwan and bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman in MILF territory.

An initial investigation suggests a chain of miscommunication was a factor in the incident but the extent of the President's knowledge about the operation is yet to be determined.

The incident has affected the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is part of the government's peace negotiations with the MILF.

The NTC said that while there is a clear separation between Church and State in the Philippine Constitution, they feel obligated to denounce questionable actions.

"The Church and her pastors must never abandon their duty to denounce evil and to guide men, women and children in their active search for the truth and the good. Moral evil must be removed from the political and social system," it said. "This task, the Church and the political community cannot just leave them in the hands of politicians, no matter how virtuous they might be."

While some members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) are supportive of the NTC's stand, the group is reserving the issue of its own official statement until after the investigation into the clash concludes. Instead, it is supporting the formation of a truth commission to conduct an impartial inquiry into the matter.

"Before we have all the facts, however, the CBCP cannot morally join in the calls for [the President's] resignation, leaving this decision to his humble and prayerful discernment of his capacity to lead and the support his has not only from officials of government but from members of Philippine society," CBCP President Archbishop Soc Villegas said.