INC claims ‘victory’ on ex-leader’s death anniversary
MANILA, Philippines – For the homegrown Philippine church Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) or Church of Christ, it was the end of an era on August 31, 2009, when its second leader, Eraño Manalo, died of a heart attack at 84.
The death of Eraño, whose name comes from the words “new era,” gathered thousands of INC members for one of the most well-attended funerals in Philippine history.
Eraño, after all, led the INC for almost half a century. The son of INC founder Felix Manalo, he expanded the INC overseas, consolidated its political influence, and built the church's grand headquarters in New Era, Quezon City.
Now exactly 6 years after his death, the INC finds itself on the cusp of another era.
On Eraño’s 6th death anniversary on Monday, August 31, the INC claimed “victory” over its enemies even as the powerful church grapples with the worst crisis it has ever faced.
In a show of strength via numbers, Iglesia faithful gathered warm bodies first at the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Padre Faura, Manila on Thursday, August 27, then on Metro Manila's main highway EDSA on Friday evening, August 28. By Saturday, August 29, attendance had risen to about 5,000 before peaking at 20,000 on Sunday, August 30. It was the biggest anti-government protest mustered by the Iglesia which prohibits its flock from attending rallies.
EDSA was the site of the People Power Revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, and was witness to a similar movement that ousted then president Joseph Estrada in January 2001.
According to Intelligence information, INC leaders were targeting the mobilization of at least half a million on EDSA, reminiscent of 1986. They were planning a show of strength of up to one million nationwide but plans fizzled out.
The 5-day Iglesia protest ended on Monday, August 31.
The worst crisis of the church erupted after members of the secretive INC, including Eraño’s son Felix Nathaniel or “Angel,” exposed the alleged corruption among the church’s leaders.
Days before the INC’s 101st anniversary on July 27, Angel and his mother, Cristina or “Tenny,” appeared in a Youtube video to say their lives “are in danger.”
The INC – now under Eraño’s eldest son, Eduardo – promptly expelled Angel and Tenny.
Weeks later, expelled INC minister Isaias Samson Jr, former editor in chief of the INC’s official publication Pasugo, filed an illegal detention case against INC’s leaders before the DOJ.
Samson said church leaders placed him and his family under house arrest for 7 days after they accused him of running a blog against the INC.
Illegal detention is a non-bailable offense and carries with it a penalty of reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment. It’s the same case that led to the recent conviction of Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the Philippines’ biggest corruption scandal in recent history.
Because its leaders can be jailed, observers said, the INC quickly acted to derail Samson’s case.
Days after Samson filed the illegal detention complaint, INC leaders slammed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima for allegedly railroading the case and giving it special attention.
They said De Lima is persecuting their church, which politicians typically court because its members are known to vote as one. De Lima, whom the INC is now unlikely to endorse when she runs for senator, said she was only doing her job. (READ: Why De Lima is target of Iglesia ni Cristo’s anger)
By Monday, INC’s general evangelist, Bienvenido Santiago, announced in a video message that the INC and the government had spoken to each other and had clarified some matters.
The INC’s official news service, Eagle News, said the INC and government had reached “a peaceful agreement.” On YouTube, Eagle News headlined its announcement with "official statement of the Iglesia ni Cristo ending the 5-day peaceful assembly in victory."
INC spokesman Edwil Zabala told reporters on Monday: “Ang mahalaga po, nagawa na naming ipakita at iparinig sa lahat: Ang Iglesia ni Cristo, nagkakaisa kami.” (What’s important is we managed to show and let everyone hear: The Iglesia ni Cristo is one.)
INC’s influence vs gov't strength
Critics, on the other hand, dared the government to reveal the terms of the reported agreement with the INC.
By Monday afternoon, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte told reporters, “There was no deal struck, as some insinuate.”
Many Filipinos saw the rally as a test not only of the INC’s influence, but of the government’s resolve to enforce the law even against the will of a powerful church.
In the case of the rally, the rule of law involves enforcing the conditions of a rally permit that expired on Sunday, August 30, and was extended until Monday morning “for humanitarian reasons.”
In the long run, the rule of law is about giving due process to Samson’s case.
That is, even if the administration risks losing the votes of around 1.37 million INC members, or 2.6% of the Philippines’ voting population, in the 2016 elections.
De Lima is set to run for senator in 2016, while Aquino’s party mate Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II is eyeing the presidency.
While not explicitly backing De Lima or blasting the INC, Roxas issued the strongest statement, among the top presidential bets, about the INC rally.
On the INC’s vigil that caused monstrous traffic, Roxas said exercising the right to assemble “cannot impinge on the rights of others or cause inconvenience to anyone.”
Two politicians more popular than Roxas in presidential surveys – Senator Grace Poe and Vice President Jejomar Binay – defended the INC members’ right to fight for their rights.
In a Thought Leaders piece for Rappler, Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña said the INC’s rally “is not so much for religious autonomy, as it is for political relevance.”
La Viña added: “Leila de Lima is a thorn on the side of the INC not so much because of her intransigence, but of the terrible threat she represents to the INC and its nurtured political power. There can simply be no politician who can say ‘no’ to the INC and still survive the political fall-out, and actually still get elected to national office! She represents not only a devaluation of the INC bloc vote, but worse, the end of the ‘New Era’ we have known and have grown accustomed to.”
Basic issue: Credibility
Before it could reinforce its political relevance, however, the INC needs to address a basic question: How credible is it as an organization?
In an interview with Rappler, sociologist of religion Jayeel Cornelio cited “controversies that raise questions about the credibility of a church like Iglesia ni Cristo.” (PODCAST: Saan patungo ang Iglesia ni Cristo?)
INC leaders, for one, reportedly use an Airbus worth billions of pesos, prompting some members to critcize this “excessive luxury.”
These members said the current INC head’s father, Eraño, lived a much simpler lifestyle.
Referring to Eraño, an INC member said, “He pays for commercial travel even if back then he had enough funds to do this type of spending.”
Cornelio explained that these issues affect the image of the INC, a group founded by a former Catholic in predominantly Catholic Philippines.
He said, “What kind of religious institution does it want to be seen as – not just by its own members, but by the greater public?”
While the INC remains a formidable and politically influential group, he said the question is: “Is it a dignified organization? Does it have integrity?”
In any case, Cornelio said it is unlikely that the INC will squander the gains of Eraño, the leader credited for the INC’s expansion. (READ: INC: From rag-tag sect to influential wheeler-dealer?)
“Magtatagumpay ang Iglesia ni Cristo, wala akong duda doon,” Cornelio told Rappler. (Iglesia ni Cristo will emerge triumphant, no doubt about that.)
“But it will come out of this fire a very different institution.” – Rappler.com