The Roman Catholic bishops of the Philippines condemned last week's presidential elections today as "unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct" and called for nonviolent "active resistance" to reverse "a criminal use of power to thwart the sovereign will of the people."
The bishops said there had been widespread disenfranchisement, vote-buying, tampering with returns and violence during the election. "The wrong was systematically organized," they said in a statement. "So must its correction be."
The church statement did not directly lay responsibility for the "fraudulence" on President Ferdinand Marcos, who took today what appeared to be an insurmountable lead in an official vote count by the Philippine National Assembly, with 97 percent of the vote tabulated.
But the statement was read as a rejection of the expected proclamation of Marcos as the winner and an endorsement of a civil disobedience campaign that his opponent, Corazon Aquino, has said she will mount against him until he steps down.
The Communist Party of the Philippines and its leftist allies are also reportedly ready to join Aquino in street protests against Marcos. Details on Page A19.
The church's statement today was its strongest step to date in its long confrontation with Marcos. Its support was vital to Aquino's campaign.
The statement was issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines after more than 50 of its 120 members gathered in Manila for discussions.
It will be read in churches around the country at Sunday services and is expected to have important influence on people's feelings toward Aquino's new campaign, which she plans to begin in a rally on Sunday. About 85 percent of the country's 55 million people are Catholic.
Aquino campaign spokesman Rene Saguisag welcomed the statement but said, "It only confirms what we have known all along, that Mr. Marcos is trying to cheat us out of a victory."
Marcos supporters strongly condemned it tonight as conflicting with separation of church and state and threatening peace and tranquility.
"They are asking for violence," said a progovernment member of the assembly, Rafael Rector.
Manuel Garcia, Marcos' deputy minister of justice, was quoted on government television as saying that the ruling New Society Movement was prepared to present proof of criminal acts during the election by members of the clergy.
He said the government party had evidence that the citizens' poll-watching group known as Namfrel, with which the church is closely involved, had violated the election code and presented spurious election returns.
The extent of Marcos' concern was underlined by disclosures that his wife and minister of human settlements, Imelda Marcos, visited the bishops' meeting hall at 2:30 this morning to urge that the statement's language be softened.
Aquino also came to confer today. From the start of their deliberations, church leaders are known to have been concerned about whether her campaign would remain nonviolent.
Bishop Teodoro Bacani said the group also had a message from Pope John Paul II, reading in essence, "I am with you."
The statement was released as the Philippine assembly continued to count votes toward an official proclamation of a winner. As of this evening, Marcos had what seemed to be an irreversible lead over Aquino, with 10.2 million votes to her 8.7 million. All that remains to be counted are returns from two Manila suburbs and two provinces.
Government party legislators said today, meanwhile, that a winner could be named as early as Saturday.
The opposition has raised numerous challenges to the documents containing the count from electoral districts. But government party members said today that they want to limit the assembly's debate before the proclamation to challenges that go directly to the question of the documents' authenticity, such as the presence of proper signatures.
"We will not entertain any debate on terrorism, fraud and vote-buying," said Leonardo Perez, minister of political affairs. Such things can be referred to a presidential election tribunal for resolution after the proclamation, he said.
The opposition, however, says that the issues are the heart of the matter and should be dealt with before any proclamation.
Namfrel, meanwhile, continued to show Aquino in the lead in its unofficial count. With results in from 67.5 percent of precincts, it put the race at 7.3 million for Aquino and 6.7 million for Marcos.
In their statement, the bishops said that "a government that assumes or retains power through fraudulent means has no moral basis." They said that if such a government does not right its wrongs by itself, the people have an obligation to do so.
It laid out no specific course of action. It said only that people should come together and decide what to do and their actions must be nonviolent.
It praised "the thousands of Namfrel workers and volunteers who risked their very lives to ensure clean and honest elections." It also cited the computer technicians at a vote-counting center run by the government's Commission on Elections who walked out on Sunday, saying the center had been falsifying results.
The bishops cited four major areas of irregularity as especially worthy of condemnation:
*"Systematic disenfranchisement of voters." A "scrambling of voters' lists" made it impossible for vast numbers of people to vote, it said.
*"Widespread and massive vote-buying."
*"Deliberate tampering with the election returns." It said that "the votes of the people, even when already duly expressed and counted, were altered to register choices other than their own."
*"Intimidation, harassment, terrorism and murder." It said that "these made naked fear the decisive factor in people not participating in the polls or making their final choice."
In other developments today, two people were reported to have been stabbed during a melee with government supporters outside the National Assembly building, where people are camped out awaiting action on the vote count. Several other persons were injured, none of them seriously.
Several thousand people joined a funeral procession for Evelio Javier, an opposition campaign official who was slain three days ago, as the procession followed a 13-mile route across the city.