No matter which side carries the stronger legal or political punch in the controversy over the alleged kidnapping, harassment, threats and coercion of “expelled” Iglesia ni Cristo minister Isaias Samson Jr. and his family by some leaders of his own church, the massive outpouring of INC members on Shaw Boulevard/ EDSA from Friday till yesterday to protest Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s allegedly “unfair” handling of the case, and the public reaction to the march have clearly wounded the Aquino administration and hurt the INC.
The protesters scored De Lima for granting “extraordinary attention” to the charges filed by Samson against certain leaders of his politically powerful church, while failing to act with reasonable dispatch on several other more urgent cases of national import, such as the congressional bribery in the Corona impeachment trial; the criminal abuse of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) and Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), which the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional; the Mamasapano massacre of Jan. 25, 2015, in which 44 Special Action Force police commandos were killed by the combined forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters; and the siege of Zamboanga, in which so many civilians were killed.
This is a valid point. But the government’s prompt action on one case is not rendered suspect or questionable by its ignominious failure to act with equal dispatch on far more important cases. To extend the discussion a little bit, an institution that can mobilize thousands to protest a perceived injustice against its own interests ought to be able to mobilize an equal number to protest greater injustices against the national interest.
A number of national politicians were quick to defend INC’s “right to protect its faith,” but so many others on social media and at least one party-list congressman did not hesitate to slam the INC for alleged “tyranny” while supporting the justice secretary. Akbayan party-list Rep. Barry Gutierrez challenged the government and those aspiring to become national leaders “to stand up for the rule of law and not bend before the tyranny of organized numbers.”
De Lima has said she was merely doing her duty when she gave due course to the Samson case, and support for her on twitter is now surprisingly reported to be trending worldwide.
Within the context of Philippine electoral politics, where voters and politicians generally accept INC’s bloc-voting power to help elect public officials, what De Lima did was highly “impractical and impolitic” for anyone aspiring to run for high office. She would obviously be better off with INC support, even with Smartmatic running the polls.
What then gave her the courage to do it? Was she simply doing her duty, as she said, or was she carrying out PNoy’s directive?
On their part, the respondents in the Samson complaint have reason to be concerned. Not only is serious illegal detention a non-bailable offense, its prosecution and trial could also be rushed, if needed. Thus the formidable Janet Lim Napoles is in jail today for the serious illegal detention of her nephew and former employee Benhur Luy rather than for her alleged role in the so-called P10-billion pork barrel scam.
According to INC spokesmen, the Samson complaint arose from disciplinary measures imposed by their church on its erring members. As such, they point out, legal authorities cannot interfere in the matter without violating the constitutional separation of Church and State. This is an important doctrine, properly understood, although it failed to help Filipino Catholics who argued during the passage of the widely opposed Reproductive Health Law that state-run contraception violates the right of the Church to teach the faithful that contraception is intrinsically evil and should always and everywhere be avoided. In the present instance, the side in support of Samson argues that the case involves specific punishable crimes, rather than anything related to the freedom of religion and the practice of one’s faith.
INC protesters began their vigil in front of the Department of Justice building on Padre Faura on Thursday and continued on Friday. On the evening of the second day, they marched to the intersection of EDSA/Shaw Boulevard, where they were joined by so many others from various parts of the city and country. The march was generally peaceful and orderly, and there were none of the menacing street barricades and anti-riot squads with truncheons and tear gas common to street assemblies. But it snarled the normally heavy traffic and provoked curses and catcalls from angry motorists and commuters on the road.
On Saturday afternoon, Malacañang was compelled to send Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa to talk with the INC top leadership. It was not known what Ochoa had proposed to end the march, but nothing has leaked from the meeting or from the Palace, so nobody knows what transpired. Ochoa had come upon President B. S. Aquino 3rd’s orders, and whatever demand or proposal he received from the INC, if any, will have to be accepted or rejected by the President. So far there’s been nothing but silence.
What is obvious though is that there were more government quotes supporting De Lima in the social media, on the street, and the Sunday press. She’s trending on twitter like a rock star, said one text message. Someone instantly suggested that Mar Roxas pick her up as his teammate, if we’re still talking of presidential elections in 2016. Another suggested she should now replace Roxas as the LP presidential candidate.
Many protesting INC members withdrew from Shaw to attend their usual church service yesterday morning, but returned at midday to continue their vigil. Meanwhile, huge INC delegations from Bicol, Davao and other provinces began arriving in Manila to join the protest assembly.
The march has been one big success in putting like-minded people on a vital intersection of EDSA for several days. But the organizers appeared to have failed to consider that although their immediate grievance was against De Lima, their audience, whose support they needed to win, was the entire Filipino people, only a few of whom belong to INC.
Until I heard my good friend Atty. Serafin Cuevas Jr. on Eagle broadcasting explain in a calm, dispassionate and elevated manner the INC side of the story, I thought the various guys speaking for the INC were doing their very best to get non-INC Filipinos get pissed off with the Iglesia.
It was so easy to say that the National Bureau of Investigation had already investigated the complaint and closed the investigation; therefore the Secretary’s move to investigate it further seemed highly suspect and irregular. Why wasn’t this said enough? Were the INC other than the politically active bloc-voting institution that it is, and De Lima not an announced aspirant for a senatorial slot in the next elections, suspicions would not probably be as high as they are right now. People would have easily understood the INC position, if it was aired as plainly as this by the INC spokesmen. But nobody said it as clearly as Atty. Cuevas until he did.
Most of them were so absorbed in the fact that Samson got De Lima to listen to him so quickly. What made him so important, they asked, that she should prioritize his case above so many others? Some words and phrases were used with such hubris that I could see some of my INC friends squirming in their embarrassment. Whether intended or not, whether the words were used or not, the message I seemed to hear was: “We are the INC, how dare you do this to us?”
I have never heard anything like this from any of my INC friends. It was poor messaging at its saddest, a terrible disservice to my INC friends. When the march began, many Filipinos were hoping it would launch the great bandwagon that would rid the nation of its long unwanted system and regime; but the organizers limited it into a purely INC small-town affair that made every non-INC member a pure outsider and unwelcome spectator.
So many more had wanted to join the march, but how could they, given these conditions? The organizers succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory without half-trying.
But all is not lost. While the fire still burns and the crowds are still out there, the INC could enlarge its vision and objective and with the help of all other groups and sectors, transform its march for justice for the Iglesia into a march for justice and dignity for all. Then we could begin to consider whether or not we should now set up a caretaker government before we start talking of another election.