Church groups in the Philippines are warning that the country's woes will worsen with the transition to a federal form of government. The Association of Major Religious Superiors and the National Council of the Laity have raised concerns that the rush to federalism will "divert attention" from pressing problems in the country. In a statement, the religious superiors criticized the "shameless" lifting of limits on the terms of elected government officials. The Lower House of Congress on Dec. 4, composed mostly of allies of President Rodrigo Duterte
, moved closer to passing a draft constitution that seeks to shift to a federal form of government. Duterte has pressed for this, claiming it will address poverty in various provinces. The proposal calls for 15 federal states, including one for Muslims in Mindanao and another for the indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras on the northern tip of the main island of Luzon. The draft charter, which proposes the removal of term limits for members of Congress, is now one step away from being passed by the House. Church leaders said the move for a constitutional change threatens human rights and civil liberties, and cements the powers of political dynasties. The draft constitution lacks an anti-political-dynasty provision that is present in the current charter. Carmelite priest Gilbert Billena, who works closely with families of those killed in the government's deadly war on drugs, said the amended provisions "can only worsen our problems." Citing the liberalization of public utilities, the privatization of health and housing services, and the opening up of educational institutions, mass media and advertising to foreign ownership, Father Billena said the proposal "caves in to big capitalists." Manila Bishop Broderick Pabillo
said earlier the push for federalism is a "smokescreen" for Duterte to take total control of the country. The proposed charter also adds phrases like "lawless violence" as a reason for declaring martial law. Duterte has used that phrase to order attacks on tribal schools suspected of supporting communist rebels
. In the statement, the religious superiors listed the "urgent woes" the country is facing, including poverty, entrenched political dynasties, desecration of the environment, and assaults on national sovereignty.
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The group also noted the "systematic massacre of alleged drug addicts and pushers" and the authorities' defiance of the rule of law. Former president and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
said Congress could not pass the amended charter under her watch. She said legislators would "bring it as far as we can bring it," and expressed hope that the next Congress would be able to pass it. The 17th Congress of the Philippines will end its session in the first quarter of 2019. Several senators have said there is no more time to tackle the issue of changing the charter because of pending deliberations for the 2019 budget.