Angered by what they describe as the "death of truth and justice", thousands of indignant Filipinos, with the blessing of Roman Catholic and Protestant church leaders, are taking to the streets in a protracted campaign to remove their president, Joseph "Erap" Estrada.

On the night of January 16, just hours after the Senate voted down a proposal to open an envelope said to contain proof that President Estrada was corrupt, protesters gathered at various points in the capital and other cities.

Twenty-four hours later the crowd that had gathered at a historic shrine in the capital had swelled to become the biggest gathering yet to call for the president's removal.

"Stay here until all evil is conquered by good, and all corruption is conquered by integrity. Stay here and keep watch," the nation's most influential cleric, Cardinal Jaime Sin, Archbishop of Manila, told the crowd of 200 000 gathered outside the shrine on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, commonly known as the EDSA shrine. The cardinal's words signaled the beginning of what has been dubbed People Power II, a repetition of the popular uprising that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Graffiti hastily written in many places in Manila proclaims that "the fight is now in the streets." At the same time, the Couples of Christ, a mainly middle-class Catholic organization, has placed full-page advertisements in newspapers with the heading "Guilty", demanding Estrada's dismissal. The advertisements call on "all patriots" to converge on the EDSA shrine and on meeting places in other cities to hold a 24-hour vigil in the next few days "until President Estrada resigns".

The advertisements include a quote from Paul's letter to the Romans (13:11): "And do this because you know the time has come; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed."

Referring to the vote that stopped the Senate tribunal from opening the envelope containing bank documents, Cardinal Sin declared: "We know that the senators are not pursuing the truth. They are pursuing the acquittal of the president."

In a highly emotional meeting on January 16, the Senate court voted 11-10 not to admit the documents as evidence. "With all the evidence, only the foolish and the crazy will say that he [President Estrada] is as innocent as a dove and as innocent as a baby," Cardinal Sin said.

The vote triggered the resignation of the Senate president, a senator-judge and the prosecution panel, forcing the Senate, on January 17, to call for an indefinite adjournment of the impeachment hearings. Public prosecutor Jokes Arroyo said the country was now on the verge of a constitutional crisis with a "damaged" Senate, a "paralyzed" House of Representatives, an impeached president, and a possible postponement of national elections scheduled for May.

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Cardinal Sin expressed the fear shared by many Filipinos when he said that the vote on the envelope was a preview of senators' voting intentions concerning the guilt of the president.

President Estrada faces charges of culpable violation of the constitution, bribery, graft and corruption, and betrayal of public trust. The Philippines Senate, constituted as the impeachment court, was receiving the prosecution's evidence of graft and corruption when the vote on the admission of evidence was taken.

The public prosecutors are members of the House of Representatives.

Bishops of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) have called all the church's members onto the streets "to denounce in unequivocal terms the travesty of truth and justice".

The UCCP has joined many human rights and citizens' groups in calling since called for the resignation of the 11 "shameless" senators who voted against opening the envelope.

The UCCP said in a statement signed by its bishops and the chair of the church's general assembly that the senators were "hiding the truth from the people" and had "lost their moral right to remain in the hallowed halls of the Senate, for they turned their back on the call for truth. Instead, they followed the lure of power, influence, money and popularity. The blood and the future of the country is in their hands."

Cardinal Sin went even further, calling on Catholic lay men and women in the Estrada government to resign immediately. "We are angry at our Catholic lay men and women in the Cabinet [who] have seen the evidence, and use the tyranny of numbers to suppress the truth. How can you face God and sleep at night and support this immoral president? I say to the Cabinet, resign! You should have done this a long time ago because you knew about this a long time ago."

Catholic educational institutions have also condemned the president and have urged their graduates in the Senate and in the government to resign. The University of Santo Tomas, Asia's oldest Roman Catholic university, has declared it will no longer use the services of the corporate law firm which is representing President Estrada in the impeachment hearings. One of the legal firm's partners is a graduate of the Dominican-run institution.

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In a public message to President Estrada and the 11 senators, the university declared: "Resign, we urge them, or face the wrath of God."

Calls to join the daily protests and the boycott of companies supporting Estrada have been published in newspapers and are being circulated by mobile phones and electronic mail.

The impeachment trial started on December 7. The trial and controversy about the president have badly affected the Philippines currency, the peso, which this week hit a record low level on the international currency markets.

Related Elsewhere:

Other media coverage of protests in the Philippines includes:

Thousands of Estrada Foes Form Human Chain—The Los Angeles Times (Jan. 18, 2001)

Chaos as Estrada slips off the hook—Bangkok Post (Jan. 18, 2001)

Revolution stirs as trial collapses—The Australian (Jan. 18, 2001)

Estrada beset by protests—BBC News (Jan. 18, 2001)

The arrogance of the 'Pro-Erap' senators provoked the crisis—The Philippine Star (Jan. 18, 2001)

Previous Christianity Today stories on the Philippines include:

Lost in the 'Promised Land' | Hundreds die in Philippines dump tragedy, but churches move quickly to care for the orphaned and injured. (Aug. 10, 2000)

Catholic Priest Fears Violence will Continue in Southern Philippines | "We must prepare for the worst," he says of "directionless" peace talks. (March 9, 2000)

Two Major Philippine Churches Sign Agreement for Closer Links | Reformed and Catholic influenced denominations working toward full union. (Nov. 31, 1999)

Missionaries in Harm's Way | Filipino churches send workers to harvest difficult fields. (June 14, 1999)

Centennial of Protestantism Marked | One million Christians gather to celebrate in Manila. (June 15, 1998)

Muslim Separatists Sign Peace Accord | After 24 years of fighting can the new peace last? (October 28, 1996)