THE Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) on Monday did what no other religious sect has done: shut down the nation’s capital.
The INC’s “evangelical” mission led to massive traffic jams, forcing the Supreme Court to suspend court sessions and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to cancel its games.
Many employees were furious because they had to walk to their destinations. On Sunday, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority announced the cancellation of elementary and high school classes in 12 cities and one municipality, while the city of Manila cancelled classes in all levels.
More than 1.5 million people converged in several areas in Manila where the INC distributed bags of rice. Thousands also lined up to have themselves examined by doctors and dentists for free.
The gathering of the secretive and politically influential INC also forced some government offices to close.
“We really apologize for those who were inconvenienced. Maybe they can just pass this off as a minor sacrifice to help their countrymen,” INC spokesman Edwin Zaballa said.
Zaballa said the event was also part of year-long celebrations across the country to mark the lead-up to its centenary in 2014, and “to spread the word.”
Between two and three million people attended the event either as a church follower or aid recipient, according to Manila’s police chief, Isagani Genade. The organizers estimated the crowd at between 1.5 million and two million people.
The event is one of many ostentatious displays of faith in the mainly Catholic Philippines, where religious leaders also wield heavy political influence.
However, not everyone who attended was celebrating.
In a square fronting Manila’s central post office, tempers frayed during the fierce afternoon heat as men, women and children jostled while waiting for medical care offered by the group.
“This is madness. I have been here since dawn to get a free medical check-up, but I will get more sick in this heat,” said factory worker Flor Kato, a 40-year-old mother of five who was complaining of chest pains.
Several people fainted due to the heat, while others simply gave up in frustration.
Founded by Felix Manalo in 1914, the INC exerts huge political influence despite being outnumbered by the country’s more than 75 million Catholics.
Its followers are instructed to vote as a bloc, so politicians often seek their leaders’ anointment during election season.
Its teachings are more conservative than the Catholic Church, with its followers not allowed to marry non-members. They are also required to give 10 percent of their salaries to the church.
When Erano Manalo, Felix’s son and successor as leader of the church, died in 2009, then-president Gloria Arroyo declared the day of his funeral a public holiday.
In a major show of force last year, sect members held peaceful rallies across the country to protest the ouster of Chief Justice Renato Corona, who had known links with the INC.
That rally was also taken as a sign of a breaking of ties with President Benigno Aquino 3rd, who had won the support of the church in the 2010 elections but then spearheaded Corona’s impeachment.
Zaballa said Monday’s gathering was merely an evangelical exercise and not “a show of force.”
But Sen. Miriam Santiago disagreed.
“There is a message behind the INC event today. If you are a politician and you don’t get it, you are a fool,” Santiago posted on Twitter.
Presidential deputy spokesman Abigail Valte refused to say if the event was meant to remind the government of the sect’s influence in politics.
“At this point, we have no reason to believe otherwise than the purpose for which it is being stated ,that it’s a medical and dental mission,” Valte told reporters.
AFP and Catherine Valente