MANILA, Philippines – Flying in style? Why are the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) leaders using an ostentatious Airbus 330-202 and a Boeing executive jet that cost billions of pesos?
The price of a huge Airbus ranges anywhere from P8.8 billion ($200 million) to P11 billion ($250 million). It is being used by INC executive minister Eduardo Manalo in his pastoral and personal trips abroad, informed sources confirmed to Rappler.
A long-term lease of an Airbus 330 could easily cost $5 million to $6 million, excluding payment for the pilot and flight times. This $5-million minimum lease translates to at least P225 million, sources in business circles said.
On record, the last time the plane was used was on June 27, 2015, when Manalo visited Taipei and officially established Taiwan as an ecclesiastical district.
In February, the INC chief also used the Airbus to go to Seattle, Washington and embark on a series of pastoral visits in the US, one Iglesia source, who requested anonymity for fear of being expelled, said.
Photos sent by the source showed that at least one security aide of the INC had his photo taken inside the modified cabin of the Airbus. Aircraft of this kind may be customized to have a living area similar to the photo below.
The Airbus that Manalo and his ministers are using is aside from a Boeing Business Jet 737 that had been described as "the best-selling jet airliner in the history of aviation." Depending on the model, a passenger business jet can seat from 85 to 215 passengers, while a customized executive jet can have a bedroom and seats good for 20-30 passengers, sources familiar with aircraft told Rappler.
The Boeing Business Jet 737 is said to have been purchased 4 years ago at an estimated price of about P3.6 billion ($80 million), the sources told us. Yearly maintenance costs of these types of aircraft, according to those in the know, easily amount to from P3 million to P4 million. This excludes fuel expenses.
At any given time, the Airbus is supposed to be parked at a private hangar in Clark Airport. This was independently confirmed by a top-level source based in Clark who has seen the plane in Clark and who said it is the property of the Iglesia.
It is however registered under a different name, based on registration papers. Data from the Civil Aviation Authority of the Cayman Islands show the plane’s registered owner as "Skytrooper Limited". The Airbus plane, model A330-202 and with serial number 1321, was registered on July 19, 2012.
Skytrooper Limited is a company in the Cayman Islands.
As it turns out, the other executive jet, a Boeing 737-700 IGW model was also registered under the name of "Skytrooper Ltd" on December 6, 2011. "Skytrooper Ltd" is also a company in the Cayman Islands.
According to its website, the Cayman Islands Aircraft Registry “is the registry of choice for many owners and many management companies with corporate aircraft ranging from Cessna Citation, Gulfstream, Embraer, Airbus and Boeing Business Jets.”
Rappler has learned that maintenance of the Airbus is being handled by the staff of a business tycoon.
Sought for comment about the Airbus and the executive jet, INC spokesman Brother Edwil Zabala merely said, “’Yan, hindi ko kayang sagutin personally, dahil wala akong personal knowledge diyan.” (That I cannot answer personally because I don’t have personal knowledge about it.)
The personal use of the Airbus has enraged some INC members who say it is “excessive luxury” which the former INC head did not lavish upon himself.
Referring to the late Eraño "Ka Erdy" Manalo, who died in August 2009, one INC member said, “He pays for commercial travel even if back then he had enough funds to do this type of spending.”
Now headed by Ka Erdy's son Eduardo, the powerful INC is caught in its worst crisis since it was founded in the Philippines a century ago.
From a struggling sect in the early 1900s founded by Felix Manalo, the INC has grown dramatically, now claiming to be present in 100 countries spanning 6 continents. In the Philippines, it has about 2.5 million adherents as of 2010, many of them poor. (INFOGRAPHIC: What you should know about the Iglesia ni Cristo).
An INC source said that Felix Manalo’s divine task was to establish the roots of the INC faith in the Philippines. His successor and son, the late Eraño Manalo, was tasked with spreading the faith in the country and abroad.
The divine role of current INC head, Eduardo Manalo, for his part, is to see to it that the faith further spreads worldwide and makes the INC self-sustaining. Eduardo assumed the post of executive minister in 2009 after his father "Ka Erdy” died in August.
While Eraño’s administrative style may be calculating, Eduardo is proving to be more of a risk-taker.
It was during his term that the INC got more aggressive in purchasing properties in Australia, Korea, and Japan, an INC insider pointed out. The sect’s most controversial purchase is the abandoned property in South Dakota in 2011, to the tune of $700,000 (P30.8 million). (READ: INC services begin in South Dakota ghost town.)
The INC also got aggressive in money making ventures and tourism, with its grand, 75-hectare Ciudad de Victoria in Bulacan, whose centerpiece is the Philippine Arena – the world's largest indoor arena. (READ: Iglesia ni Cristo’s centennial project draws world attention to PH)
Earlier, Felix Nathaniel "Angel" Manalo said of his brother Eduardo in Filipino, "Our request is, he should not believe in the Sanggunian that he is trusting, because donations to the Iglesia are wasted on unnecessary projects." He also alluded to corruption within the church. – Rappler.com
Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.