29-30 APRIL 2002
Iglesia ni Cristo: 'A Most Powerful Union'


ON THE SLOPES of Montalban, Rizal, a short distance form the low-cost government housing project that has been named "Erap City," the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) is building 1,300 two-bedroom houses on a 29-hectare property it has christened Pamayanan Ng Tagumpay or Victory Town.

In Dasmariñas, Cavite, INC members are living in 500 two-story townhouses that the church built in 1996.

In Barangay Culiat, Quezon City, INC ministers, deacons and deaconesses are moving into three newly constructed buildings that house 120 condominium units.

INC members and ministers pay subsidized rental—about P200 a month for the Montalban houses. That is, as long as they remain faithful to the church.

These constructions give an indication of how a small, minority church can command the obedience of at least two million people and propagate itself despite the ostracism of bigger churches.

At the most basic level, the INC provides for the welfare needs of its flock, such as jobs and housing for its poorest members. The INC is run like a tightly knit family, where members look out for one other. It also offers the rewards of the other life, promising that as sure as the soaring turrets of the Iglesia's Gothic-style churches pierce the sky, salvation will be granted believers.

At the same time, the 88-year old INC is a shrewd political and business operator. It parlays the votes of its members for political and financial concessions to the church.

Iglesia doctrine is based on the Bible and the "prophetic interpretations" of church founder Felix Y. Manalo, who left both the Catholic and the Protestant churches before founding the INC in 1914.

Manalo's son Eraño is now the powerful executive minister of the church, while grandson Eduardo is deputy executive minister. They and 11 other senior ministers compose the "Central Administration," which issue edicts that church members are compelled to follow.

Pasugo, the church's official publication, asserts the church's fundamental article of faith: that INC members constitute "the elect of God" and that God listens to them alone. To them, there is no salvation outside the Iglesia.

As Fernando Elesterio wrote in a dissertation submitted to De la Salle University: "It is this exclusivist attitude, generated naturally by the teachings of the ministers, that bestows on the members a sense of security and even of pride in their organization."

"It does not matter that they are few, compared to those in the Catholic Church, or if they are viewed as unlettered; after all, they will go to heaven while the rest of mankind will go to hell."

The church's Internal Constitution lays down strict rules of behavior for its members. Drunkenness, adultery, and disobedience of church teachings are punishable by expulsion. Church members are also not allowed to join unions, making them ideal recruits for certain business establishments. "The church itself is a union, a most powerful union," said a senior INC member.

The INC was founded on the eve of the World War I with only four ministers and 12 disciples. By 1936, it had grown to 300 ministers and evangelists with 500 churches and 350 chapels on Luzon island, according to the Encyclopedia of the Philippines.

Julita Reyes Sta. Romana, in her seminal study of the INC, said that by the 1950s, the church was recruiting from 10,000 to 15,000 converts a year. The 1990 Census of Population and Housing places the number of Iglesia members at 1.4 million, three times more than its membership in 1970.

The INC has members among overseas Filipinos as well and says it has churches in 66 countries, including 39 in the United States, 23 in Asia, 15 in Europe, 11 in Australia and Oceania, and eight in Africa.

But it is not numbers alone that make the INC such an influential church today. The Iglesia commands strict obedience from its members. It votes as a bloc, and its leaders are wooed by politicians eager for support.

As explained in the May-June 1986 issue of the INC's official publication, Pasugo: "The Church of Christ observes unity even in electing public officials (Philippians 2:2:3; I Corinthians 1:10). This is not to interfere with politics, but in obedience to God's commandment. This unity is never betrayed by a true member of the church of Christ, even if some would be displeased."

INC claims to have 2 million members of voting age, although pollster Felipe Miranda believes that the actual figure is closer to 1 to 1.5 million. At the national level, this bloc is a strategic swing vote, especially in multiparty electoral contests for the Senate. It is a swing vote for the presidential race as well, but only if there are multiple candidates. At the local level, especially in Luzon, the Iglesia command vote could determine the fate of a candidate.

Lito Banayo, Estrada's ex-political affairs adviser, said, "In areas with 100,000 voters, 15,000 INC voters is your margin of victory." Banayo joined Estrada's campaign team in 1998 and he notes that the INC bailiwicks were also Estrada's—the Tagalog-speaking regions.

Who the INC votes for depends in large part on what these candidates can do—or have done—for the church, even if they are not exactly paragons of the virtuous life that the Iglesia proclaims as ideal.

Thus, unlike the Catholic Church, the INC supported President Joseph Estrada even if he had several mistresses. The Iglesia also did not raise moral objections to the excesses committed by the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

The INC's approach is more pragmatic. "The leaders say that for a long time, these guys have been helping us," explained a senior member. "They give the kapatid (brethren) jobs, they protect the church's interest. And then they ask, 'Who in politics is without sin or vices anyway?'"

Caloocan City's former mayor, Macario Asistio, for instance, is a long-time INC ally. When Asistio, Estrada's buddy, lost to Rey Malonzo, the favored candidate of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, many INC members also lost their jobs at the Caloocan City Hall.

The INC exercises its clout outside the realm of politics as well. In 1998, a big commercial bank sued the church in a dispute over property that had been offered for sale to both the bank and the INC.

The bank had acquired the land earlier, but a relative of INC Executive Minister Erano "Erdie" Manalo brokered its sale to the church, unaware of the earlier transaction.

"The church felt insulted it was being sued in court," an influential INC member said. "You don't go to court or go public at once. Usually, you call up the Iglesia first."

Stung by the lawsuit, church leaders ordered all their members employed by the bank to resign and called on all the faithful to pull their money out of the bank. The bank lost P1 billion. In time, the case was settled amicably, with the bank properly advised never to cross the INC in public or in court again.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a non-Iglesia, knows this lesson well. Some years ago, as a senior police officer, Lacson faced a dilemma over what to do with controversial police Col. Romeo Maganto, a kapatid. "Lacson had to go to the central (INC headquarters in Quezon City) to secure permission to fire Maganto," the member recalled. "The permission was given."

Over the years, the INC's business interests have grown. A search at the Securities and Exchange Commission showed that INC leaders are incorporators and board directors in companies engaged in education (New Era University Inc.; Global Foundation for the New Era); medical care (New Era General Hospital; Felix Manalo Puericulture and Maternity Clinic), mass media (Scan Society of Communicators; Association of Christians in IT); manufacturing (Hi Mill Corporation); construction (Ramdustrial Corp.); and legal service (Christian Lawyers Association Foundation).

Former Justice Secretary Serafin Cuevas, one of Estrada's defense lawyer and a senior INC member, is a trustee of the New Era University and officer of Amalgamated Management and Development Corp., which has secured the contracts for production of driver's licenses, identification cards, and motor vehicle plates from the Marcos to the Estrada regimes.

It is not uncommon for the INC to attempt to secure the best deals for its projects. The church's housing projects in Montalban, Rizal and in Dasmarinas, Cavite are instructive cases.

In both projects, the INC began construction even if it had not secured all the necessary development permits and environmental compliance certificates (ECC).

In Montalban, the church has a development permit and zoning/locational clearance only for Phase 1 of the five-phase project, and building permits for only two-thirds of housing units it wants to construct. These permits were given the by sangguniang bayan despite the INC's failure to produce a prior requirement - the ECC.

Oscar Ferrer, senior environmental management specialist of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office of Rizal, worries about what could be an "environmentally critical project."

"The site is only moderately sloping. What makes it critical, as reported by residents in the area, is that the area has an earthquake fault line that might be connected to the Marikina fault," Ferrer said.

In Dasmariñas, municipal Engineer Gregorio Bermejo certifies that the INC project has little documentation except for an approved site development plan. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Region 4 office says it has no record of any ECC application for any housing project in Cavite under the INC's name.

The INC is trying to wangle tax-exemption deals as well. In 2000, the Montalban municipal assessor declared the 29 hectares of church lands used for housing to be taxable, and three hectares for the chapel, exempted from taxes. The assessor estimated that the INC would have to pay some P5 million in taxes.

The church, however, refused, arguing that the INC project was not meant for profit and should therefore be tax-exempt. The INC leaders also wrote personal letters to Rizal Gov. Rebecca Ynares, who endorsed the matter to Montalban Mayor Pedro Cuerpo.

Former Rizal Provincial Assessor Oscar Baraquero denied the request, saying "the housing project which you claimed for charitable and philanthropic effort does not squarely fall under the provisions of the law, as these are intended solely for the members of INC…the term charitable is an act of humanity without distinction or limitations as to religious belief, creed or social affiliation."

The tax debate has been raised to the Department of Finance for decision.

Meanwhile, Montalban officials are in a quandary. The INC has dangled before them the fact that they have many voters in the municipality. "'Yung pwersa ng boto nila ang panlaban nila," said one local official. "Maraming takot diyan sa Iglesia. (They use their votes as bait and many are afraid of them.)"

INC members have also barred DENR inspectors from entering the other phases of the Montalban project. One inspector said he feared asserting himself because INC members are armed.

(The PCIJ exerted every effort to speak with INC spokesman Lowell Menorca, who is the only person authorized to speak for the Church. Menorca did not want to be interviewed, saying he is on a provincial tour.)

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