MANILA, Philippines – It is not only elective officials that the Iglesia Ni Cristo tries to establish relationships with.
They also try to establish rapport with appointive officials – even if they’re non-INC members – especially if they are seen to be a possible source of help some day. They help lobby for the appointment or promotion of these officials to key government posts.
“It’s like a pass-it-forward thing,” De La Salle political science professor Gladstone Cuarteros said. Two such cases were former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and impeached chief justice Renato Corona, an INC member confirmed.
The INC’s clout was somewhat diminished under the administrations of former President Corazon Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos. Aquino was installed by a Catholic Church-backed People Power uprising, while Ramos, a Protestant, favored the Christian evangelical group, Jesus is Lord Movement of Brother Eddie Villanueva.
But the INC came back with a vengeance during the short-lived presidency of Joseph Estrada.
The former president and the Manalos, leaders of the church, have enjoyed close personal relationships dating back to when Estrada was mayor of San Juan. In fact, the headquarters of the INC used to be based in San Juan.
Returning the goodwill of the INC, Estrada appointed several members of the sect to key government positions. Shortly after assuming office, he appointed INC member Serafin Cuevas as his first secretary to the Department of Justice. He has since passed away. Two years later, Estrada appointed another INC member, Artemio Toquero, also as justice secretary.
How did Estrada know what could please the INC?
The INC makes it easy for their political allies to know what they want in the form of lists of appointive positions they want secured for their own members. “They submitted a list to Estrada. They also submitted a list to President Aquino,” a former government official who both worked for Estrada and Aquino said.
The INC’s favorite playgrounds are the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, regulatory bodies, and revenue-generating agencies like the Bureau of Customs. “You could see these are key government positions. The aim is not to make money, but more for the protection of their members and easier access to government.”
The INC also enjoyed political considerations from former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Positions in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court (SC) were filled up at the INC’s behest.
Among the justices who were beneficiaries of INC endorsements are incumbent SC Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco and retired SC justice Ruben T. Reyes. The INC also backed them when they were appointed to the Court of Appeals initially. Arroyo also appointed Reynaldo Wycoco, a retired general and INC member, as NBI chief. Wycoco died in 2005.
When Aquino assumed office, the INC was expecting the President to return the favor. To their dismay, however, Aquino paid little attention to the INC list, although he appointed INC member and former Quezon City police chief Magtanggol Gatdula to the National Bureau of Investigation.
He further incurred the ire of the INC when Aquino began targeting Gutierrez and Corona who are considered allies by the INC.
As early as August 2010, the INC expressed its displeasure over Aquino’s failure to appoint its recommended people in certain government posts, one INC source said. This source confirmed he was among those recommended by the INC to a revenue-generating agency but was bypassed.
The displeasure reached a point where INC executive minister Eduardo Manalo wrote a letter to Aquino withdrawing the church’s list of recommendations.
The INC source said Aquino quickly sought a meeting with Manalo to mend ties, but Manalo was no longer in a reconciliatory mood. Manalo sent one of his trusted aides to meet Aquino in his residence in Times Street in Quezon City.
To please the INC, Aquino agreed to retain a Ninoy Aquino International Airport customs official – an INC member – in his post, a separate source said. But the downward spiral of Aquino’s relationship with the INC was by then irreversible.
Show of strength
In EDSA 3 in 2001, the INC firmly realized they have clout and influence even outside the polls. “That’s where they got more empowered,” Cuarteros said. Mobilizing its members to flock to EDSA Shrine in support of Estrada, who was arrested and detained for plunder charges, the INC discovered a new power source they could tap to make their presence felt.
This show of strength was even more evident in Aquino’s time. They have flexed their muscle, at least in the streets, and in other subtle ways. Their medical missions in the run-up to the INC’s centennial celebration, were a subtle show of force indicating they have the numbers and are growing.
During the impeachment of Corona, the INC staged what it called a “religious activity” but which many political observers interpreted as a show of force and support for the embattled impeached Chief Justice. (READ: Iglesia’s show of force)
It was also a show of resentment over how the Aquino government was treating INC members in government. The INC invited its local political allies and even high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church who are critical of Aquino.
One of the more prominent cases was that of Gatdula, whose career was nurtured by the INC. In 2006, he was named by then Quezon City Mayor and now Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr as Quezon City chief of police – upon the strong lobby of the INC.
Gatdula was however sacked by Aquino after reports surfaced linking him to the kidnapping of a Japanese.
The INC had wanted Aquino to give Gatdula a graceful exit by letting him resign instead of being fired. But things turned for the worse when the INC’s Eduardo Manalo interpreted as “blackmail” Malacañang’s counter-offer that the charges against Gatdula would be dropped if Cuevas backed out as Corona’s lawyer. (READ: PNoy and God’s ‘anointed’ ones)
Beyond the streets, the INC was also working behind the scenes to rally support for Corona among senators. While Malacanang sought to downplay the INC intervention, it nevertheless prompted Aquino to seek an audience with Manalo. (READ: PNoy meets with INC on eve of CJ testimony)
To be sure, the INC has built a formidable image that it can make or break the political career of those aspiring for public office. Its solid vote is a prized catch for anyone, and could possibly attract the undecided voters to go for the potential winners.
INC spokesman Edwil Zabala said bloc-voting is based on Biblical teachings. “One of the Bible teachings is unity. Unity in serving the Lord God. Unity in faith. Unity in rendering judgment. That’s in the Bible. So when members of the Iglesia ni Cristo, for example, here in the Philippines, are asked to vote, we are being asked to render a judgment. So we have to put God, obedience to God first, before obedience to any man-made law. If God requires unity, if God requires that the body of Christ, the Church of Christ be one, we will uphold it no matter how others may react to it.”
Essentially, it seems to be a reverse of the adage, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
But for all the political posturing, show of force and unity of the INC during elections, it suffers one major flaw: shifting loyalties. They could be rabidly supporting a candidate one time, and then move to the other side the next time.
Such was the case of Estrada, whom the INC had supported all his political life, except in the 2010 polls. Escudero was treated similarly.
On the local front, former Manila Mayor Joselito Atienza had the same experience in his proxy battle against rival Alfredo Lim. In the 3 elections for the Manila mayoralty race – one of which was contested by Lim, the INC backed Atienza. However, when Atienza pushed his son, Arnold, to contest the mayoral race after he (the older Atienza) completed his 3 terms, the INC transferred its support to Lim.
When Estrada contested the Manila mayoral race against Lim in 2013, the INC swung back to Estrada.
“They’re just being pragmatic,” observed a former Cabinet official and political observer. They will go to the one who they can benefit from.”
The retired archbishop said this is the problem when decisions by church higher-ups in political matters are personality-based and are not arrived at with full discernment. It can be subject to the whims and caprices of church leaders. – Rappler.com