MANILA, Philippines – Vice President Jejomar Binay criticized the Aquino administration for pursuing the investigation into the alleged abduction of ministers of the powerful religious group Iglesia ni Cristo (INC).
Binay cited “religious freedom” to argue that the issue was internal to the INC.
“Why the persistence when an NBI team had already concluded there was no crime committed? The [justice] secretary's actions and the Palace's support for her demonstrate the administration’s obsession to control independent institutions like the INC, in violation of their freedom to worship. And if the administration cannot control, they harass and intimidate,” Binay said on Monday, August 17.
The Vice President was responding to the statement of Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr over the weekend that the justice department has the mandate to probe possible violations of the law, and file a case in court with sufficient evidence.
Binay maintained that the government should not interfere in the INC's feud.
“Malacañang and the Department of Justice (DOJ) should refrain from making any statements that impinge on the independence of a religious group. They should respect the institution’s religious freedom,” Binay said.
Allegations of kidnapping and corruption first came out in July, triggering the worst crisis in the secretive and politically influential INC.
In a Youtube video, the brother and mother of INC executive minister Eduardo Manalo claimed that their lives were in danger, and hinted about the abduction of ministers. In an unprecedented move, the INC expelled Angel and Tenny Manalo, along with other ministers and members who spoke about alleged misuse of funds.
The INC holds power in the political circle for delivering solid bloc voting, with an estimated 1.37 million registered voters in 2013. Political analysts have said that the INC bargains with politicians to gain concessions in exchange for endorsements, a charge the group denied. (READ: INC: From rag-tag sect to influential wheeler-dealer?)
In 2010, the religious group endorsed Binay's rival, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, for the vice presidency, along with his partner President Benigno Aquino III.
In INC's current crisis, Binay has been vocal against a government investigation into the rift.
“Instead of meddling in INC affairs, the administration should focus on more pressing matters such as poverty alleviation and addressing the (Metro Rail Transit) MRT problem. It would do well for the Palace and justice officials to deal with what’s on their plate first,” he said.
INC case like Binay corruption scandal?
Binay's statement comes after his supporter, lawyer Harry Roque, also criticized De Lima for conducting a “witch-hunt” of the INC.
A possible senatorial candidate of Binay's United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), Roque has said that De Lima should stop the investigation in the absence of a complainant. The law professor said that the government should only pursue the case when there is a complaint filed with the police.
Binay echoed Roque's views in a letter he sent De Lima last week.
The presidential bet pointed out that Manuel Eduarte, chief of the NBI Anti-Organized Transnational Crime Division, already declared as “case closed” the reported abduction of the INC ministers.
Eduarte had said that the NBI failed to find evidence to prove the abduction.
De Lima refuted Eduarte's statements, and formed a new team to investigate the case. She said that some members of the previous team were INC members. She added that Eduarte's statement was “unauthorized and untrue.”
Still, Binay asked De Lima to stop issuing “unwarranted statements” on the INC.
“By your actuations, you are promoting the image of disunity, discord, and even corruption in the INC to its clear prejudice and detriment,” Binay said.
“As public officials, it is our duty to respect the internal affairs and concerns of the INC and allow them, without the unwarranted interference from government, to conduct their own business in accordance with their religious beliefs. No less than our Constitution guarantees this inviolable separation of church and state,” added Binay, a lawyer.
De Lima responded by saying that she is not meddling with the issue. She said the DOJ already obtained sworn statements and testimonies from witnesses.
The justice secretary made the stand even after admitting that she is considering running for senator in 2016.
Binay even compared De Lima's handling of the INC case to the corruption allegations against him.
The Vice President faces multiple plunder complaints over allegedly overpriced Makati infrastructure projects, supposed bid rigging, and the use of dummies when he was mayor of the country's financial district for 21 years.
Binay said De Lima's attitude towards the INC issue was similar to the “policy of demolition by perception that your office has been doing to my own person.”
“I urge you to refrain from uttering baseless, if not reckless and irresponsible, statements that would tend to harm the religious institution of the INC,” Binay said.