Philippine tour guide's protest offends Catholics

Manila, Philippines - Government prosecutors on Friday charged a popular Manila artist and tour guide with offending Roman Catholics after he disrupted Mass at the capital's main cathedral to protest the clergy's opposition to contraception.

Public debate over family planning has simmered again in this predominantly Catholic country after President Benigno Aquino III last week expressed support for the right to contraception, angering the powerful church.

On Thursday, Carlos Celdran, who is known for distributing condoms and birth control pills to poor residents as he guides tourists through Intramuros, the Spanish colonial-era walled city, interrupted an ecumenical Mass at Manila Cathedral.

Dressed in a 19th-century outfit, the performing artist approached the altar and told the priests to stop getting involved in politics and not to threaten civil disobedience against any government plan to promote family planning and birth control, according to police.

He carried a placard bearing the name "Damaso," seen in the Philippines as a term of insult for priests. Damaso is the name of a friar depicted in a novel by national hero Jose Rizal who was openly strict with religious practices yet secretly fathered a child.

Celdran, 37, was arrested at the cathedral and freed almost a day later on 6,000-peso ($138) bail. Friends of the artist had set up a Facebook fan page calling for his release, drawing more than 12,000 supporters by the time he posted bail.

"I apologize for being rude, but it was necessary for me to be rude," he told reporters while in custody on Thursday. "I am sorry for the method that I used but I have no apologies for the message that I made."

He was shown on television kissing the hand of the rector of Manila Cathedral, Monsignor Nestor Cerbo, while offering his apologies.

Police officer Jun Gumaru said prosecutors had charged Celdran with "offending religious feelings," which carries a maximum penalty of six years' imprisonment.

In a statement Friday, Manila's 238 priests expressed "disapproval and condemnation" of the protest.

"These actions cannot by any means be considered within the purview of freedom of expression," the statement said. "Instead they were malicious acts directed towards a faith, a religion that was represented by its leaders and the faithful gathered."

President Aquino's expression of support for the right to contraception has angered bishops and renewed church attacks on a reproductive health bill that calls for contraceptives to be provided in government hospitals and sex education to be taught in public schools.

Proponents of contraception have argued that rapid population growth and high fertility rates have exacerbated crushing poverty, and birth control could be a powerful way to raise living standards.

Bishop Nereo Odchimar, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, clarified an earlier report quoting him as saying that Aquino may be excommunicated for pushing artificial birth control.

The bishops' website reported Friday that Odchimar believes that a dialogue with the government and not confrontation is the way forward.

"Threat of excommunication at this point of time can hardly be considered to be in line with dialogue," the website quoted Odchimar as saying.