Catholic bishops call on Philippines' Arroyo to quit

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MANILA, Oct 19 (Reuters) Three Philippine Roman Catholic bishops called today for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to step down, saying she had lost the moral authority to lead the country amid a string of corruption allegations.

Two Protestant ministers, a retired justice and a businessman joined the bishops' call for the president's resignation, asking the people to show their disgust over recent scandals in Arroyo's government.

''There is no other alternative for the people but to demand that the leader, the chief executive, the commander-in-chief, the president step down and resign,'' Catholic Bishop Julio Labayen said, reading a prepared statement.

''Malacanang (the presidential palace) is doing everything to cover up the mess but in the process is further revealing itself as not only morally bankrupt but totally bereft of any moral or reasonable basis to govern.'' Bishops Antonio Tobias and Deogracias Yniguez said a bigger group of church leaders was organising meetings on Oct. 27 in different parts of the country to demand Arroyo hand over power to Vice-President Noli de Castro.

''We are not anti-Gloria bishops, we are bishops for truth, honesty and the common good,'' Yniguez told a news conference in Manila.

Tobias added: ''If you are clean and untainted, then you're with us.'' The church has long been a powerful political force in the mainly Catholic Philippines and bishops were at the forefront of the ''people power'' revolutions to oust two previous presidents -- Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001.

INQUIRY Yesterday, Arroyo's major ally in the House of Representatives, Speaker Jose de Venecia, said he wanted a more credible inquiry into the distribution of money to her allies after a meeting last week at the presidential palace.

The controversy is the latest in a series of scandals facing Arroyo and analysts say a split with de Venecia, who controls a 95-strong block in the lower house, could be risky for the president, who is facing her third impeachment complaint in as many years.

At least 80 signatures are needed for an impeachment complaint to progress to the opposition-dominated Senate. Arroyo currently dominates the lower house.

''It will be nice if we will have an honest-to-goodness investigation,'' de Venecia said.

Arroyo had ordered a ''quiet'' inquiry into the bribery allegations but has not commented on the issue.

The opposition has said the payments amounted to bribery since, at the meetings, Arroyo discussed the impeachment complaint against her.

Since August, Arroyo's government has been on the defensive, avoiding senate inquiries into political killings, election fraud and corruption in government contracts.

Last month, her husband was named in a kickback scandal that forced his golfing partner -- the head of the elections agency -- to quit his job.

Last week, an official in Arroyo's political party, Kampi, was fired after he allegedly offered bribes to opposition lawmakers to support a weak impeachment complaint against her, thereby shielding her for at least a year from similar motions.

REUTERS ARB PM1735

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