A power struggle has threatened the stability of Iglesia ni Cristo, a politically influential religious sect in the Philippines. (Photo by George Moya)
A power struggle is threatening the Iglesia ni Cristo, an influential 101-year-old religious sect in the Philippines that has an estimated 2.25 million members around the world.
Since last month, the church, also known as the Church of Christ or INC, has been expelling members who raised questions alleging the misappropriation of funds.
Now the quarrel, which has been playing out in the Philippine press, has put the usually secretive sect under a public spotlight. Even the Catholic Church in the Philippines, which does not recognize Iglesia ni Cristo as a Christian church, has weighed in on the issue.
The sect was set up by a dissatisfied Catholic, Felix Manalo, on July 27, 1914, and claims to be the "one true church" and the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy of the first church re-established in the Far East.
Felix, whose followers considered him a prophet, died in 1963 and was succeeded by his son, Erano Manalo, who died in 2009. Another son, Eduardo Manalo, then became the group's "executive minister".
On July 23, Eduardo ordered the expulsion of his mother Cristina Manalo — Erano’s widow — and his siblings Felix Nathaniel Manalo, Marco Erano Manalo and Lolita Manalo-Hemedez.
"We have been threatened ... because they say we are opposing the leader," Felix Nathaniel Manalo said in an interview. "We love our brother, but the problem is those around him."
The Manalo family members are accusing the sect's leadership, under brother Eduardo, of corruption.
Felix Nathaniel Manalo said the group's money has been spent on "all sorts of projects which we don't even need".
One of the projects was the Philippine Arena, the world's largest indoor arena, which was opened in 2014. The sect has also reportedly bought the U.S. town of Scenic, South Dakota for less than US$800,000.
In the last week of July 2015, Isaias Samson, former editor-in-chief of the sect's newspaper, told media that he and his family were held under "house arrest" by armed sect guards while 10 ministers had been abducted.
Samson called on members of the sect to reveal the alleged corruption of their leaders.
“You know the grievances of our brethren ... who have been complaining about the burdensome tasks they were being asked to do,” Samson said in a video posted on social media site Facebook. “But why are you still ignoring it?”
Church officials later filed a criminal libel complaint against Samson.
A woman attends the centennial celebration of the Iglesia ni Cristo in 2014. (Photo by George Moya)
David Michael San Juan, professor of Philippine studies at De La Salle University in Manila, said the public rift represents a crossroads for the usually secretive sect.
"The rift may weaken it if it fails to address concerns on transparency and other issues,” he said. “The rift may strengthen it if it leads to more transparency in their highly respected institution.”
San Juan said some issues that church members raised are "valid".
"The allegation that certain ministers tried to extort money from politicians is a public issue," he said. "Another public issue is the alleged use of church funds for some leaders' luxury."
However, church spokesman Edwil Zabala denied that the crisis is dividing the group.
"Those saying the [Iglesia ni Cristo] is divided might have been prompted by a lack of understanding of the faith of the members of the Iglesia ni Cristo," he said in an interview.
In a separate statement, Zabala said church members “remain united in upholding its teachings”.
Church weighs in
Iglesia ni Cristo is considered the largest homegrown religious sect in the Philippines. However, the Catholic Church does not recognize it as a Christian church because the sect does not see Jesus as divine.
Despite this, the INC’s sheer size and political influence has prompted Church officials to weigh in on the issue.
In a statement in July, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the bishops' conference, said Catholics should pray for a peaceful resolution to the Iglesia ni Cristo’s problems.
“We would ask God that we hope that the INC would be able to overcome its current situation and resolve it without causing much negative effect on anyone's lives,” Villegas said.
The prelate said authorities should look into reports that some members of the sect are in danger.
In the meantime, observers are debating what impact Iglesia ni Cristo’s current problems may have on next year’s presidential elections.
Iglesia ni Cristo exerts significant political influence, mobilizing support for the presidential bid of several winning candidates since the fall of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“The question for political analysts now centers on the impact of the disturbances within the INC on the 2016 elections,” said political analyst Edilberto de Jesus.
“Who stands to lose or to gain from the potential fragmentation of the INC votes?”