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Muslim nominee to election commission has interreligious support


February 09 2009

Conveners for the Bishops-Ulama Conference support the nomination of a Muslim lawyer from the southern Philippines as a national election commissioner.

The three conveners of the conference of southern Christian bishops and ulama "highly recommended" Elias Yusof, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said at a Feb. 3 press briefing.

The conveners are Catholic Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao, retired Bishop Hilario Gomez Jr. of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and Hamid Barra of the Ulama League of the Philippines. Ulama are Islamic scholars recognized as religious leaders and interpreters of Islamic doctrine and law.

Ermita announced during the briefing that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had named Yusof, prosecutor in Marawi City since 1980, to the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to replace former commissioner Romeo Brawner, who died last May.

COMELEC, one of three constitutional commissions in the Philippines, is the premier guardian of the ballot. Its principal role is to enforce all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of elections, ballot initiatives, referendums and recalls, and it must prepare for national and local elections in 2010.

The commission proper is the policy-making body comprising the chairman and six commissioners. Bodies in both houses of Congress must approve their appointments.

On Feb. 6, Senator Panfilo Lacson, in a televised interview, said he would probe rumors Yusof "has connections" to Virgilio Garcillano, a former COMELEC commissioner implicated in alleged cheating in the 2004 presidential election. Recordings purportedly document conversations between Garcillano and Arroyo while votes were still being collated.

Lacson, who chairs the Senate Commission on Appointments, claimed that were the link established, it would show the presidential office has plans to cheat in 2010.

That same day Barra said, "We, the ulama, recommended him (Yusof)." Speaking from Mindanao, the main southern Philippine island, he added that "Archbishop Capalla and Bishop Gomez relied on our recommendation."

Bishop Gomez confirmed his support. "I do endorse him," the Protestant prelate said, adding that he has known Yusof for a long time. "Archbishop Capalla, Barra and I endorsed Yusof," he reiterated. Archbishop Capalla could not be reached.

Barra elaborated: "I would not recommend him if I did not think he would do the necessary reforms in COMELEC."

Marawi City, capital of Lanao del Sur province, is 805 kilometers southeast of Manila. Popularly called the "Islamic City of Marawi," only 4.7 percent of its people are Catholics. The city and province belong to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Henrietta De Villa, chairperson of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting and the citizens´ group National Movement for Free Elections, described the province as the country´s "cheating capital" during elections.

"In elections of the ARMM, they themselves are saying this is the cheating capital of elections in the Philippines," she remarked over Church-run Radyo Veritas on Feb. 4, citing special elections COMELEC has held due to protests over poll anomalies.

"It is a very controversial area," De Villa said. She added that while she does not know much about Yusof, it would have been better if the president's office had been more transparent about his selection.

Barra claims he lost a congressional bid in 2007 "because of people in COMELEC." He said he supports Yusof's appointment because he is "sure every vote cast will be counted."

Yusof has a legal practice that spans beyond the two decades he has served as city prosecutor, and Barra pointed out that even after 30 years in government service, Yusof is still not rich. "We nominated him because we feel what is needed in COMELEC is a man of moral fiber, and he can provide this."

It is only fair, he added, that "we people from Mindanao have some say, some part, in running our government."

Catholic Bishop Edwin de la Pena, who heads Marawi prelature, commented that even if Yusof knows Garcillano, this does not prove anything. "They would have to show me something more than a mere association to convince me he is under the man's influence," he said after the Feb. 5 conference.

The 13-year-old Bishops-Ulama Conference was established to allow religious leaders in Mindanao to work for peace and development in the region.