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Philippine Christian group launches protest over religious freedom

Members say Manila interferes with influential church's internal politics

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Published: August 31, 2015 08:24 AM GMT

Updated: August 30, 2015 10:11 PM GMT

Philippine Christian group launches protest over religious freedom

Thousands of Iglesia ni Cristo members gather along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Mandaluyong City to protest the government's alleged interference in internal church matters. (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)

The country's Catholic bishops called on Catholics not to fan the "flames of dissension" as the influential Iglesia ni Cristo, or Church of Christ, ended on Aug. 31 a five-day protest for religious freedom.

"No Catholic should fan the flames of dissension by rumor-mongering and by inflammatory statements," the bishops said in a late August statement.

"Let all be kind in disposition, respectful in speech and prudent in action," the bishops added.

Iglesia ni Cristo announced it was ending its five-day protest after reaching an "understanding" with the government.

"We'd like to inform you all that both the Iglesia and the government have spoken to each other and clarified matters," said Bienvenido Santiago, general evangelist of the church.

In a statement, the presidential palace said "the rule of law has been upheld".

Sister Crescencia Lucero, coordinator of the justice and peace commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, said the traffic jam caused by the protest forced the government to talk with the church.

The church accused the government of interfering with internal church matters after Justice Secretary Leila de Lima investigated an illegal detention case filed by expelled minister Isaias Samson against church leaders. 

In late July, Samson, former editor-in-chief of the church’s newspaper, told media that he and his family were held under "house arrest" by armed guards while 10 other ministers had been abducted.

Iglesia ni Cristo has repeatedly denied the allegations.

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On Aug. 27, thousands of church members gathered outside the Department of Justice office in Manila to protest what they called the government's violation of separation of church and state. Police said at least 35,000 protesters were present while church officials placed the number at more than 100,000.

From the justice department office in Manila, the protesters transferred to Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Mandaluyong City on Aug. 28, near a Catholic shrine of the Virgin Mary.

EDSA is the site of the "People Power" revolution of 1986, when millions of Filipinos gathered on the major thoroughfare, leading to the ouster of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the restoration of democracy.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, head of the Catholic bishops’ conference, appealed to church members to show respect to the Marian shrine.

"Respect holy sites. The EDSA shrine is a Catholic center of worship. It is a church. There is a Catholic priest assigned to it. We ask that all respect the sacred character of the EDSA shrine," Villegas said in a statement.

The prelate also warned against opportunism, saying that "no politician should gain political ground by abetting dissension."

"Neither is it morally correct for any political party to aim at gaining an advantage by controlling a [church] known to propose to its members a chosen set of candidates," Villegas said.

Iglesia ni Cristo, which has an estimated 2.25 million worldwide members, has always exerted significant political influence, mobilizing support for the presidential bid of several winning candidates since the fall of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

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