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INC – The Murky Line Between Church, State and Organised Crime in the Philippines

A few hours ago, a man called Isaias Samson Jr hastily called a press conference in Manila announcing that he had escaped from ‘armed detention’ in his own home and that at least 10 of his colleagues were being held in similar circumstances in homes and local prisons around the country. He attributed his detention to being accused of speaking out in public about his organisation’s financial dealings and leadership. He said that he and his family had been confined to their house by armed men, mostly corrupt army and police force officials, for over a week.

Isaias is not, as you might imagine, a high profile mafia witness or government whistleblower – he’s a minister in an evangelical church. One of his jobs is editing their newspaper Pasugo (God’s Message), which ran a story about possible financial misconduct in the higher echelons of his church. He denies knowledge of the articles which either makes him a very bad editor or a very ambitious liar. In any case, we need to take a breath and think about this for a second.

An internal conflict within a church organisation has led to the alleged unauthorised mobilisation of armed government officials and the (alleged again) abduction of at least 10 people and their families. How is this even possible?

Well, firstly, INC is not your average evangelical backyard outfit. It’s the third largest religious organisation in the Philippines, which is really saying something when you consider the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church dominates the country. The INC was founded in 1914 by a discontented visionary (or loony, depending on your perspective) called Felix Manalo who seems to have described a kind of low rent Lutheran arc through the religious establishment of the then US colony. Gathering followers on the strength of his denunciation of Catholic practice and theology, he slowly attracted followers and firmly established a family dynasty of front men for his ‘Iglesia Ni Christo’ (Church of Christ). Today, the INC has over 1200 chapels worldwide and a couple of Guinness World Records – one for largest gospel choir (close to 5000 strong), and one for largest mixed purpose arena, being a 55000 seat stadium constructed for the purpose of their centenary celebrations last year.

While the world records must be nice for them, the family dynasty side of things appears to be a little more problematic. A few days ago, relatives of the current ‘monarch’ of the church released a Youtube video pleading for help, claiming that their lives were in danger and that their supporters had been kidnapped by armed men. This was initially seen as a bit of a bizarre blip, but Isaias’ ‘escape’ seems to confirm that this might actually be happening. Some commentators are saying that the Manalo family members are making a power play, angry at having been marginalised by the current executive minister, Eduardo Manalo. Others are saying that recent revelations about financial misconduct and extortion have resulted in the excisement of those Manalos who have failed to keep quiet. It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the INC congregation contains roughly 3% of the country’s electorate, votes in a block, and has a reputation amongst its followers for blind and total obedience. These people are a very big deal indeed – basically, if you want to run for president, you’re not winning without the endorsement of the INC.

What also matters is that nobody is even blinking at accusations that the INC could use its influence to extort millions of dollars from various local governments and commit fiscal malfeasance on a breathtaking scale. Sure, they’re denying it, but nobody has even suggested that such action would be improbable or impossible.

This is deeply, deeply worrying. In a state that purports to be democratic and secular, there is a religious organisation who can influence, intimidate and extort governments and (apparently) suborn the country’s armed forces into illegally detaining people who are inconvenient to them. Whatever the ins and outs of their internal squabbles, the real take-away from this is the potential power of rich, indifferently sane organisations if they are allowed to expand unchecked and infiltrate the mechanisms of the state.

This is not to say that we should immediately ban and patrol all church members. But it beggars belief that a church as crazy as this one could have been allowed to become so large and influential. INC is very much a restorationist and end-times church that believes all other denominations are apostates and that their first minister was Jesus Christ’s last messenger on Earth. In this country, believing crap like that would seriously limit your options in government employment, largely because we don’t hand out security clearances to cult members. In this particular case, we can see the tip of the iceberg of implications of failing to check and monitor what are, in effect, subversive, insidious and just plain whacky organisations as they form and grow.

And disturbingly, the INC is not a million miles away in doctrine, beliefs and power, from many of the church organisations currently operating in the USA. In fact, it’s pretty certain that the USA is where the first Manalo probably got his template for how to build a major church. One can only hope that the US, with even more at stake in terms of firepower and power in general, can get better at limiting the influence and operations of radical, apocalyptic and messianic lunatics.

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2 Responses

  1. Ron Angelo says:

    I’m not sure if the INC deserves that much credit. But I agree that the separation of church and state in the Philippines is murky. I actually wrote about it here:

    I don’t think this little squabble in the INC is going to move the needle. They’re congregation has a reputation of being extremely devout and fanatical. I feel that somehow, they will be able to sweep this under the rug with little effort.

    • Chris says:

      I read your post with great interest – my piece was really aimed at highlighting the problem in the USA, where militant churches not only vote in blocks but control a significant proportion of election funding. That kind of subtle, not necessarily unconstitutional interference that still results in churches having a disproportionate amount of power is rife in the states and, to a lesser extent, here in Australia.

      So I take your point entirely about the INC. The more I look into them, in fact, the more I get the sense that this kind of ruction is actually their natural habitat, so to speak, so I agree: they’ll probably just swim straight through this. The value, for me, is that they tend to be far more dramatic, so serve as a very effective case in point.

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