MANILA -- Islamic clerics have issued a fatwa that calls on Filipino Muslims not to support former President Joseph Estrada's bid to return to power in May elections.

The separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said on its website Saturday that the Bangsamoro Supreme Council of Ulama had studied Estrada's actions and policies before and after his election and had issued a fatwa, or religious edict, concluding that "he is really an enemy of Islam."

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A fatwa is an Islamic religious ruling, a scholarly opinion on a matter of Islamic law.

Estrada was elected president in 1998. The edict said his "all-out war" policy against the separatists in 2000 caused widespread destruction and displacement of up to one million Muslims from their communities in the southern Philippines.

Responding to the edict, Estrada's spokeswoman Margaux Salcedo said the former president "is a friend of Islam, not an enemy of Muslims."

She said the military operations against the rebels were meant to achieve peace in Mindanao "so that Christians and Muslims could live in peace side by side."

"President Estrada is only appealing to the (MILF), to those who insist on secessionism and use terrorism, abductions and havoc to pursue this secessionist movement, to please allow peace to be achieved in Mindanao," she said.

The fatwa was read at a rally in the southern Muslim city of Marawi on March 9, said Lacs Dalidig, head of the Islamic Movement on Electoral Reform and Good Governance and one of the organizers of the rally.

The Ulama council has been sympathetic to the rebels in the past. Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the separatist group respects the Muslim clerics' fatwa.

The rebel group will not openly campaign for or against anyone running for office, "but nothing can prevent us from urging our members to go for a certain candidate," Kabalu said.

Estrada was ousted in a popular revolt in 2001 and later convicted of plunder. He was pardoned by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo weeks later.

Recent public opinion surveys for the May 10 balloting put Estrada in third place behind Senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III of the Liberal Party and Senator Manuel “Manny” Villar of the Nacionalista Party.

The fatwa also included Senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, Aquino's vice presidential running mate, and party leader Franklin Drilon, who is seeking to return to the Senate.

Roxas leads in the vice presidential race, according to the surveys.

The fatwa said Roxas and Drilon opposed a preliminary peace deal between the rebels and Arroyo's government in 2008.

The deal was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, triggering attacks by the rebels against Christian communities on Mindanao.

But in a statement, Roxas said he was "committed to securing peace through negotiations" with the rebels. He said he opposed the preliminary peace deal because it was a "secret pact" that could have divided the country.

"We are all for peace. But we are against any effort to divide the nation and destroy our sovereignty," he said.

Prof. Asiri Abubakar, who teaches Asian studies and Islam in Southeast Asia at the University of the Philippines, downplayed the impact of the fatwa among Muslims in the country.

"There is no such thing as a Muslim vote in this country," he said. "What is stronger is the clan-controlled or family-controlled vote of the political dynasties in the south because they have clout, money and weapons. They have the coercive power, if coercive power is needed."

The rebels have been fighting for Muslim self-rule for about four decades. The fighting has killed an estimated 120,000 people since the early 1970s and hampered the economic growth of resource-rich Mindanao.

The rebel front has been holding peace talks with the Arroyo government but a new agreement is unlikely before President Arroyo steps down in June. (AP/Sunnex)