|IGLESIA NI CRISTO
Church at the Crossroads
by MALOU MANGAHAS
A YEAR ago today, hundreds of thousands of poor Filipinos loyal to ousted President Joseph Estrada mounted a six-day vigil at the EDSA shrine.
Police officials say that most of the protesters—three in every four—were members of the pro-Estrada Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), a secretive, tightly organized church composed mainly of poor members.
Today the INC has made peace with the government and has tried to exercise its clout as it had in the past, by influencing the appointment of key officials and promising to deliver votes in exchange for concessions to the church and church-linked businesses.
At the same time, however, INC leaders are flirting with the political opposition while remaining ambivalent in their support for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The ambivalence is mutual. Arroyo and her deputies maintain close contact with INC leaders, wooing their support for the government and for the presidential elections in 2004. But the government has also placed the INC under tight watch amid reports that some church ministers are sitting in a "coordinating council" composed of Estrada allies, which is planning protest actions to mark the first anniversary of what is now known as "EDSA 3."
An Iglesia deacon reportedly attended a pro-Estrada meeting weeks ago, according to a presidential adviser and an opposition source. An INC member explains that "his attendance is probably authorized not because the church wants to participate but just to have a listening post."
Also in those meetings were Estrada's son and San Juan Mayor Joseph Victor "JV" Ejercito, columnist Herman Tiu Laurel, and Lito Banayo, Estrada's political affairs adviser and now media consultant of Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson. El Shaddai representatives were invited as well.
At the same time, the INC is lending discreet support to Lacson's political base-building efforts. On our provincial visits, "someone would whisper to us and say we should drop by the Iglesia head chapel," a Lacson aide revealed. Lacson now calls on the Iglesia on every provincial sortie, said the aide.
The directive to support Lacson comes from INC executive minister, Eraño 'Ka Erdie' Manalo himself. "Ang bilin daw ni Ka Erdie, 'si Ping, suportahan ng todo-todo. 'Yan ang papalit kay Erap,'" said the aide. (Ka Erdie said, 'Let us give Ping our full support. He is likely to succeed Erap.')
This worries Arroyo. "The mere mention of Ping's name makes her turn ballistic," said a presidential adviser.
To be sure, the INC's use of its clout mirrors the way in which the Catholic Church has tried to influence successive Philippine governments. The Catholic hierarchy mobilized its flock for Edsa I and 2 and has tried to sway state policy on such issues as population control. The INC, a much smaller church, is not as powerful as the Catholics, but it has not been shy about playing politics either.
On May Day Eve last year, some 150,000 Estrada loyalists, many of them INC members, marched toward Malacañang Palace, rammed through police barricades en route, and for 12 hours, braved gunfire and truncheons with sticks, stones, and pure rage.
Hours before the rampage, Arroyo had appealed to INC leaders, who ordered their members to pull out of Edsa and return home. Many stayed, anyway. When the melee was over, four protesters were killed, three of them members of the INC; 113 were injured, including many church members.
Rigoberto Tiglao, who had just been named press secretary that week, recalled that Palace officials were surprised to learn that of the scores arrested, two-thirds were INC devotees. Said a Cabinet member who was privy to Arroyo's negotiations with church leaders, "Walang isang salita ang Iglesia.(The church speaks with a forked tongue.) "
Today the INC still seems to be treading carefully on two paths. "We lost some of our followers then," a church member quotes a senior minister to explain why the church is inclined to support the EDSA 3 anniversary rallies.
Since last year, the INC has also been pressuring the government, initially to put Estrada under house arrest and later, to allow him to go to the U.S. for treatment. What is at stake in the Estrada debate is not lost on Arroyo. "The bottom line," says a presidential adviser, "is we must get the Iglesia support in the 2004 elections."
"The game," the adviser says, "is mutual gain, mutual benefit."
Indeed, the INC's Manalo is seen as a pragmatic leader, whose main concern, says a Cabinet secretary is "the survival, the expansion of the church, and preserving the church's properties."
Although "the Iglesia is a wild card because of its personal ties with Erap," he adds, "Ka Erdie knows that if they insist on fighting GMA, she will fight back."
True, the INC is still bristling that Estrada, whom it supported in the 1998 and previous elections, had been ousted from office. "Minsan lang nanalo yung presidente namin, tinanggal pa nila (They ousted the only president who was supported by our church)," says an Iglesia member.
The INC views Arroyo as a president with strong ties to the Catholic Church. The two churches have been locked in internecine and virulent doctrinal debates since the INC was formed in 1914.
Behind the scenes, however, the Arroyo administration has not let up on its ardent courtship of the INC. The church, in turn, has allowed itself to be wooed.
Three Cabinet members are key to cementing the relationship between the government and the INC.
Presidential Adviser on Housing Affairs Michael Defensor, three-term congressman in a Quezon City district that covers the INC headquarters and bailiwick areas, is a close buddy of church spokesman Lowell Menorca.
Transportation and Communication Secretary Pantaleon Alvarez is a friend of PIATCO spokesman Moises Tolentino Jr., an INC deacon. INC leaders have pledged support for Alvarez's confirmation as Cabinet member.
Justice Secretary Hernando 'Nani' Perez was Corazon Aquino's transportation secretary when he renewed the contract of an INC-linked firm to produce drivers' licenses in 1987. The rival contractor was Robert Aventajado, who had Marcos chief of staff Fabian Ver as broker.
Perez hurdled his last two, testy days before the Commission on Appointments in January, after the senators stopped their objections to his nomination as justice secretary. Their unusual silence was prompted by the presence in the Senate halls of Perez's friend—INC spokesman Menorca, who was seen in one of his rare public appearances.
Said one senator: "The message is the Iglesia is backing up Nani. How could anyone go against that? And so he was confirmed."
The political clout of the INC stems from the doctrine of the inviolability of the word of the all-powerful, infallible executive minister and the 17 executive officers under him. Together they compose the Church Council, which issues tagubilin or circulars that cover matters ranging from personal behavior to candidates to vote for in elections.
The tagubilin have the force of law on all the Iglesia faithful. Members who violate them, as well as other Iglesia policies against marrying non-INC members or drinking liquor and taking drugs, face suspension or expulsion from the church. This explains why INC members vote as a bloc.
It is a significant bloc as well. The 1990 census listed 1.4 million INC members, a nearly 300-percent increase from 475,407 in 1970. At an average annual growth rate of 9.8 percent in the last 12 years, INC members could reach some 2.8 million today. More conservative estimates put the INC membership at 2 million, and the most generous, at 8 million.
The Iglesia has wielded its command votes as political leverage from the time of Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon, a mason who cultivated the Iglesia's support and honored the church founder with the imperious title "Bishop" Felix Manalo. Quezon had employed the support of Manalo, Ka Erdie's father, as a foil to the Catholic Church.
But it was the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, who catapulted the INC, a minority church, to a position of parity with the dominant Catholic and the various Protestant churches. The Marcoses paid periodic visits to the INC headquarters in Diliman, Quezon City and were regular well-wishers at Erdie's birthday celebrations.
It was also during the Marcos era that the Iglesia achieved phenomenal expansion. The church stood by Marcos unto his twilight days. It directed members to vote for him in the 1986 elections and came close to seriously dividing its flock.
Many members voted for Corazon Aquino, the Catholic Church's anointed. This prompted INC ministers to conduct a house-to-house visit of members to compel confessions of whom they voted.
"We did not want to complicate one error (voting for Aquino) with another, which is to lie about our vote," an Iglesia member of over 20 years recalled. INC rules say that those who disobeyed the order should be expelled. But "they couldn't do that because many voted for Cory," said the INC member. "That would be a whole, big flock out of the church if you decide to excommunicate."
Instead, church ministers asked errant members to write letters of apology to the church.
PulseAsia president Felipe Miranda, a pollster who is familiar with the demographics of various groups, believes that the INC command vote is overstated. "The more the economic conditions of people improve, the wider the latitude of political decisions they entertain, outside of the advice of the traditional church," he said.
"The ability of the Iglesia to actually deliver votes is becoming more and more tenuous as social status seems to be improving within the Iglesia membership," said Miranda. It is also possible, he added, that the INC is seeing a gap between the electoral behavior of better-off, more independent-minded members and that of poorer churchgoers.
In the 1992 presidential election, the Iglesia went for Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., Estrada's running mate and Marcos' ally. "They (ministers) knew it was tagilid (unlikely he would win) but you just have to go with the head office's decision," said an INC member.
Cojuangco drew support from INC members in Metro Manila, faced resistance in the provinces, and eventually lost to Fidel V. Ramos, a Protestant. The fact that Ramon Mitra Jr., Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin's candidate, met an even more stunning defeat provided the Iglesia some comfort.
In 1998, the INC went all out for Estrada. Church leaders and their mostly poor members took to Estrada as a church champion; his victory was considered the church's own, especially because the Catholic Church had so vigorously opposed "Erap."
Estrada had been supported by the INC since his second run for mayor of San Juan town. Estrada, in turn, favored the Iglesia. He named two INC members, Serafin Cuevas and Artemio Tuquero, as justice secretary. Both are influential INC members.
Estrada also renewed lucrative contracts for an INC-linked company represented by Cuevas and a brother, a retired colonel. Since the Marcos period, the company, Amalgamated Management and Development Corp., has bagged the contract to produce driver's licenses, identification cards, and motor vehicle plates from the Land Transportation Office.
The contracts are up for renewal this year. The 2002 budget sets aside P57 million for the production of motor vehicle plates and P329 million for drivers' licenses. These are subsidies that rival contractors said should not be provided at all because motorists pay for their car plates and licenses anyway. In addition, Iglesia members have been appointed to the LTO by a succession of presidents.
In December 1998, Estrada fired Jackie Cruz as chairman of the National Telecommunications Commission, reportedly because Cruz had rejected INC's application for a UHF television bandwidth. Instead, another licensee was given an expanded frequency application. Cruz was replaced by Joseph Santiago, who described the circumstances surrounding his predecessor's ouster at a briefing at the American Chamber of Commerce in March 1999.
The INC didn't abandon Estrada after his fall. Even before he was arrested on April 25, 2001, the Iglesia called for house arrest for the deposed leader.
On the eve of the EDSA rallies, senior INC ministers telephoned pastors, directing them to mobilize members for the protest. The church, however, did not issue a tagubilin for its members to go to Edsa. Instead, pastors announced that the faithful would not be discouraged from joining the rallies.
The INC's relations with the government remained testy after Edsa 3. Days before the May 2001 elections, intelligence officials got information that opposition forces were hatching a destabilization plot at the INC headquarters in Quezon City.
Two tanks and six trucks full of soldiers surrounded the church compound. This so angered Manalo that he called an emergency meeting of the church council, which right there and then decided to rescind support already promised to some People Power Coalition candidates. Arroyo rushed the next day to the church compound, apologized, and restored INC support for her candidates.
"Ka Erdie is so personalistic," observed a Cabinet member. "He wants his friends and his church to be given due respect."
A senior INC member affirms as much. "Usually, you should call up the Iglesia first to let them know." The absence of due courtesy and notice by the Arroyo government of the deployment of tanks and soldiers to the church's headquarters explains in large measure why "the hierarchy is very disappointed with GMA," said the member.
The INC has always resisted any attempts to encroach into its physical space. Military intelligence sources say that the Iglesia has 1,000 to 2,000 high-caliber firearms in its armory, apart from guns owned by individual members who include soldiers and policemen.
In September 1972, INC members shot at and killed three Marine soldiers who were part of a contingent sent by Marcos to shut down the church's DZEC radio tower.