Philippine church and military change guard

MANILA Mon Dec 12, 2011 3:02pm IST

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MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine Catholic Church and military, the two most powerful institutions in the country that have helped topple two previous leaders, installed new heads on Monday as acrimony over investigations into another former president intensified.

The church and the armed forces are the two most influential bodies in a fervently religious country and played important roles in the 1986 overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the 2001 ouster of President Joseph Estrada.

The church named Antonio Tagle, a charismatic and media-savvy 54-year-old priest, as Manila's new archbishop in a sign it was stepping up the defence of its faith.

On the same day, President Benigno Aquino, whose government is testing the church's power by proposing to liberalise laws on contraception and divorce, installed a long-time family ally as head of the 130,000-member military.

Aquino is locked in a battle with the country's top judge, whom he accuses of hindering his anti-corruption drive, over efforts to investigate his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Jesuit-educated Tagle became only the fifth Filipino head of the Archdiocese of Manila in its more than 400-year history, replacing the retired Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales.

Joselito Zulueta, an analyst on church affairs, said Tagle would be a potent weapon against government plans to legalise divorce and improve access to contraception through his close links with the Catholic middle-class and civil society groups.

Tagle is expected to be at the forefront of efforts to keep the Philippines -- the only state in the world without a divorce law -- as one of the strongest bastions of Catholicism. The church there equates contraception with abortion.

Zulueta said Tagle may also emulate the political role of revered former Cardinal Jaime Sin.

"Tagle will be political like Sin in the sense that he will continue to make the church's voice heard on political issues. Historically, the church in the Philippines is activist and interventionist," Zulueta told Reuters.

STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY

Sin, Manila archbishop from 1974 to 2003, was popularly known as the "divine commander-in-chief" after he called on Filipinos to support a group of soldiers, led by General Fidel Ramos, who rebelled against Marcos in 1986.

The same two men also shored up the presidency of Corazon Aquino, the current president's mother, against coup attempts while the country struggled to restore democracy.

Ramos succeeded her as president in 1992. In 2001, he again teamed up with Sin to oust Estrada over corruption allegations.

Loyal military leaders helped Arroyo, Estrada's successor, see off several attempted coups by disgruntled soldiers.

Benigno Aquino's broad popularity and personal honesty have significantly lowered the risk of military overthrow. On Monday he appointed Lieutenant General Jessie Dellosa, a former member of his mother's presidential guard, as military chief.

Aquino ordered the military to step up external defences and said he was confident it could also defeat threats from within.

He promised to provide funds to modernise equipment and improve the military's capability to defend maritime borders against outside powers claiming parts of the country -- a reference to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Aquino has been critical of the Supreme Court and its chief justice, who he accuses of protecting Arroyo from investigation into electoral fraud and graft charges.

(Editing by John Mair)

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