Leaders of the Philippines' influential Roman Catholic Church said Sunday they would not join calls for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to step down over corruption and vote-rigging charges.
However, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines counseled Arroyo to ponder resignation demands by both opponents and long-time allies.
"We ask the president to discern deeply to what extent she might have contributed to the erosion of effective governance and whether the erosion is so severe as to be irreversible," said Archbishop Fernando Capalla, reading a pastoral letter written after a two-day debate by the bishops' conference. "In her heart, she has to make the necessary decision for the sake of the country."
Twice in the last generation, the church has played a crucial part in the ouster of embattled presidents by throwing its weight behind opposition challenges.
Filipinos had waited anxiously in recent days to see whether the bishops' conference would add its potentially decisive voice to the resignation demands of some of Arroyo's political allies, cabinet members and one-time supporters in the business community.
A few individual bishops had previously urged Arroyo to step aside. They cited allegations that she conspired with a national election official to make sure she had enough votes to win the presidential contest last year and that her immediate family members benefited from illegal gambling rackets.
The bishops, however, decided to steer clear of the dispute. In doing so, they broke with the longtime activism of the late Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, whose opposition to dictator Ferdinand Marcos and former president Joseph Estrada, Arroyo's predecessor, made him one of the country's most influential leaders. Sin died last month at 76.
"We do not believe in the intrusion into politics on the part of the hierarchy," Capalla said.
At the same time, the bishops stressed that the standoff must be ended by constitutional means, rejecting violence or a military coup, and called for a "thorough, credible and independent" investigation into the corruption charges.
"This should give her a little more breathing space. But it's only a matter of time before she goes," said Conrado de Quiros, a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
He said Arroyo had already lost so many supporters, including most of her senior economic advisors, that she had little capacity to govern and would continue to be challenged by an emboldened opposition.
But Alexander Magno, a political analyst at the University of the Philippines, said the bishops' letter boosted the president's chances for long-term survival. "The tide has turned. There will still be a few demonstrations in the next few days but people listen to the bishops," he said.
Speaking on radio, Arroyo welcomed the bishops' letter, saying, "I appreciate their collective voice of moderation and temperance at this time of national soul-searching."
The president has acknowledged making a mistake when she called an election commissioner during vote-counting last year. The telephone conversations, which were recorded by security forces, appeared to indicate they conspired to ensure Arroyo would win a second presidential term by at least 1 million votes. But she has denied cheating and repeatedly refused to quit.
While the church statement amounts to a split decision, it still provides Arroyo with an important lift after last week's setbacks. She was pounded Friday by demands for her resignation from former president Corazon Aquino and 10 of her own cabinet members.
Arroyo has also benefited from the backing of another senior statesman, former president and general Fidel Ramos, who maintains close relations with the country's often restive armed forces. Ramos's political party has also rallied support for Arroyo among legislators and local officials.
Arroyo's opponents have called for a mass demonstration on Wednesday. She also faces an impeachment motion, scheduled to be heard when Congress reconvenes July 25.