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Ramos clashes with Church on birth control: A United Nations population conference in Cairo next month promises trouble for the Philippines and Egyptian governments

THE Catholic Church and the Philippines government are heading for a trial of strength over next month's United Nations population conference in Cairo, with churchmen hoping to bring out a million people in Manila on Sunday to demonstrate against the gathering.

The Vatican's campaign against the conference, which it expects to endorse abortion and homosexuality, has brought long-simmering tensions between Church and state close to the boil in the Philippines. Churchmen feel they have lost influence under President Fidel Ramos, the first Protestant leader of a country where more than four- fifths of the 65 million population is Catholic, and the approach of the Cairo conference is being used to put pressure on the government. 'Anything less than a clear rejection of the Cairo proposals on the part of the government is an agreement with evil,' the combative head of the Church in the Philippines, Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila, said yesterday.

In 1992 Cardinal Sin called publicly on the then president, Cory Aquino, not to endorse Mr Ramos as her successor. Despite her closeness to the Church she ignored this advice. Mr Ramos, a Methodist, soon antagonised the hierarchy by seeking to revive dormant official birth control programmes, and appointing a flamboyant social activist, Juan Flavier, to head them, but the President's high approval ratings appeared to make the Church authorities wary of a head-on clash - at least until now.

Recently Catholic spokesmen have accused the government of promoting 'pornography, abortion, homosexuality, incest and sodomy' under the guise of sex education and birth control. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, but Cardinal Sin's use of the term includes intra-uterine devices and other forms of contraception. Mr Flavier insists he will not be supporting abortion when he leads his country's delegation in Cairo, but says the Philippines must curb its birth rate to prevent the population doubling in 25 years.

Church supporters even appear to be exploiting anti-American feeling, with a senior layman accusing the Clinton administration yesterday of 'Western imperialism' in pressing its pro-abortion programme on other countries. The campaign has become so strident that a leading Jesuit academic, the Reverend Joaquin Bernas, warned recently against 'unsubstantiated allegations' which might 'erode our credibility as Church leaders'.

President Ramos has resisted clerical attempts to intervene in secular matters, such as the stand by Catholic bishops against expanding value-added tax, and is backing a law preventing religious leaders from endorsing election candidates. He has had to tread more carefully on birth control, however. Yesterday he appointed a Cabinet panel to meet bishops after the rally, which will serve as an important indicator of the Church's political strength.

(Photograph omitted)