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Traveling Pope nudges Filipino church; will it nudge Marcos?

With his island-hopping pilgrimage to the Philippines, Pope John Paul II has shown that he can have perhaps as much political visibility in parts of Asia as in East Europe.

For in that country of 49 million people (85 percent of them Roman Catholic), the church can provide or withdraw the mantle of legitimacy from the controversial government of President Ferdinand Marcos.

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Because the Filipino church is often split on political matters, John Paul's presence can also push the church in one direction or another.

Sixteenth-century Spanish conquest brought Catholicism to the heavily strategic Philippines (but the southern part fell under Muslim influence). American control of the islands at the turn of the century provided an environment in which Catholicism flourished. Post-1946 independence saw countries like the Philippines and colonies like Portuguese Macao and Timor continue as Catholicism's Asian outposts.

The Pontiff's visit to the Philippines this week comes at a critical time, with tensions between Soviet- and non-Soviet-influenced elements on the rise. His anticommunist message was broadcast from the Philippines to China and the Soviet Union via shortwave radio.

Even though martial law has been lifted in the Philippines since the delicate arrangements for the papal trip were first made, the visit was still politically charged.

Under the cautious, diplomatically skilled Jaime Cardinal Sin, Filipino Catholics (especially younger ones) had been especially critical of the President.

It remains to be seen just how heavy-handed or liberal President Marcos will be now that martial law has been officially lifted. (Some critics see the lifting of martial law as a gesture without much meaning, since Mr. Marcos is expected to remain firmly in control of things.)

Pope John Paul implied the church will act as watchdog, however leery of radicalism it may be, when he declared to President Marcos that human rights must be safeguarded whatever the circumstances.

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There was speculation that President Marcos's main rival, former Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr. would capitalize on the papal visit by returning from exile in the United States about the same time. Mr. Aquino, now resident at Harvard University, is popular in the US. But he is highly controversial in the Philippines.

Some analysts think Mr. Marcos boosts Mr. Aquino as his major antagonist to prevent a more popular, more formidable opponent from e ntering the ring.

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