The Political Lobby of the Iglesia Ni Cristo

This week, the Iglesia Ni Cristo showcased to the nation – and perhaps, the rest of the world – the Philippine Arena, a US$200-M indoor arena that is touted to be the biggest indoor dome in the world.

The arena was opened in time to commemorate the 100th founding anniversary of the church, along with a 20,000-seater sports stadium and a modern hospital built in the vicinity. According to the hierarchy of the INC, this ostentatious project was self-financed wholly by voluntary contributions of it’s more than two million adherents.

Undoubtedly, the INC has an impressive fundraising capability but what is often overlooked is their vast political influence as well.

The church has been labelled many things by it’s critics: some call it a cult, others call it a corporate business but one thing it should also be called is a ‘political lobby’ – and a very powerful one at that, too.

Unbeknownst to many, the INC has been wielding political powers for a very long time now. This is often underestimated by the public, unaware that several important political decisions have tilted to the INC’s favor due to their influence.

I can cite several examples of the INC playing a role in Philippine politics, but first some background as to why the group is so efficient as a political lobby. It basically comes down to their church doctrine on ‘unity’, the organization acts as one which translates to voting as one. Add that to the fact that an estimated 80% of it’s members are of voting age, this makes the INC a very valuable voting bloc.

Politicians have long been aware of this. One of the earliest prominent statesmen to forge an alliance with the INC was Manuel L. Quezon, who happened to win 68% of the votes in the 1935 presidential elections. In fact, the three most recent heads-of-state: Joseph Estrada, Gloria Arroyo and the incumbent Benigno Aquino III were all endorsed by the INC.

The most recent senatorial election also tilted to the INC’s favor, of the 12 candidates the group supported ten went on to win seats in the Senate. Only Richard Gordon and the infamous Jack Enrile failed to secure seats, with the former losing the final Senate seat by a mere few thousand votes.

The INC’s influence also reaches to local elections, as the church’s gubernatorial candidate in Cebu – Hilario Davide III – won his race to become the Queen province’s governor.

Some would disregard these facts and reason that the INC leadership bases it’s endorsements on opinion polls, and only support candidates who were already doing well on the polls. But this is easily refuted by the fact that several high-profile INC candidates have lost their bids at an election. Take for instance Mar Roxas, endorsed by the church yet lost in the 2010 vice-presidential elections to incumbent Jejomar Binay.

A survey conducted by ABS-CBN also showed that between 68-84% of Iglesia Ni Cristo voters heed the call of their hierarchy when they pick their candidates – proving that the group does take a united stance when voting.

Aside from elections, the INC also has it’s hands on important executive appointments. The very controversial appointment of Magtanggol Gatdula as Director of the National Bureau of Investigation in 2010 was seen as a favor to the INC, of which Gatdula is a member of, for supporting president Benigno Aquino III on his bid for presidency.

The reason why Gatdula’s appointment is controversial is because of two reasons: First, he was not an insider meaning the INC-member was not an agent of the NBI who earned his way up the ranks. He simply was installed at the helm of the organization.

Second, Gatdula was involved in several scandals during his two-year stint. The NBI chief was implicated in an extortion scandal involving a Japanese national, who was kidnapped for a ransom of Php6-M. The victim pointed Gatdula as one of the masterminds. The latter was also accused of ordering the ambush of NBI intelligence director Reynaldo Esmeralda, who was the lead investigator in the rescue of Noriyo Ohara.

Why would a religious organization that claims to have pure intentions appoint someone of such corrupt moral standards?

In a separate incident, the INC was also pinpointed by Cong. Niel Tupas of actively lobbying different members of Congress to kill the impeachment complaint against Merceditas Gutierrez, former Ombudsman and an Arroyo-appointee.

The impeachment complaint was heavily backed by the Filipino public, as opinion polls showed. Gutierrez in her term as Ombudsman exonerated several suspects involved in high-profile corruption cases such as the Fertilizer Fund Scam and the Euro Generals Scandal.

It’s hard to tell why the INC would want to support Gutierrez, who herself is a Catholic. But what is clear is that for a leader of an organization to have the gall to personally contact members of Congress to influence a pivotal political decision only shows how experienced and how confident the church is in the field of politics.

It is laudable that the Iglesia Ni Cristo church strongly believes in their doctrine of unity, a trait our country desperately lacks. However, I hold the belief that the only document that should garner the respect of the government is a secular book known as the 1987 Constitution.

This document clearly states in Article III, Section 5 that, “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

Reading that provision, we can say that the political lobby the INC wields is a dangerous one and one which clearly violates the Constitution. Throughout the century they existed, the INC has made use of their doctrine of unity as a useful bargaining chip to sway political decisions and act as a solid voting bloc.

So the next time the INC gets called different things, remember that they are also a political lobby – a very powerful one which has shifted a lot of political decisions.

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