A party-list congressman became the voice in the wilderness amid the ongoing crisis within the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC or Church of Christ) that has spilled into the streets in Metro Manila as he called on government officials to take a stand against “the tyranny of organized numbers”.
In a statement issued Saturday, Akbayan party-list Rep. Barry Gutierrez said the current crisis with the INC is an opportunity for the people “to see the true mettle of our would be leaders”.
“Who will stand up for the rule of law, and who will bend before the tyranny of organized numbers?” he said.
Gutierrez issued the statement the day after thousands of members of the INC marched to Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (Edsa) near the site where two public uprisings that led to the ouster of the nation’s presidents were held to press the Aquino government, particularly the justice department, to back off from the serious illegal detention complaint filed by an expelled church minister against the INC leaders.
Justice Secretary Leila De Lima, who has dropped hints in seeking a Senate seat next year, has stood her ground that the Justice department won’t stop its investigation on the complaint.
“We are not meddling here. It is our mandate to investigate all violations of criminal law,” de Lima told reporters.
About 3,000 INC members initially massed in front of the DOJ compound in Padre Faura (Manila) on Thursday and held an overnight vigil. They also blocked Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s car as it left the compound. The number of protesters swelled to around 5,000 on Friday and by 7:30 p.m. started marching to EDSA to meet up with other church members who were assembling in staging areas near the SM Megamall and the Our Lady of EDSA Shrine.
The mass action snarled Friday’s “pay day” traffic until past midnight, stranding thousands of commuters.
Authorities – especially elective officials — drew flak from the public for allegedly not doing anything to stop the public disturbance.
“Let me be clear, I support the right of every citizen, regardless of their religious or political affiliation, to express their opinion on any issue — and this includes taking to the streets to do so. But I likewise firmly insist on the duty of every responsible citizen, especially those occupying public office, to take a stand when the freedom of speech and assembly is used to derail legitimate government processes and bully the officials lawfully tasked to see them through.
“Rights must be respected, yes, but the abuse of those same rights must be called out and condemned.
And when that abuse of right also leads to massive inconvenience to thousands of fellow citizens, angering and alienating many of them? Well that’s plain insensitivity. Not to mention bad messaging,” Gutierrez said.
The INC is considered influential because it practices bloc voting during elections.
Of the possible presidential candidates for next year’s elections, it was only Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas 2nd who made a stand against the INC action thus far.
“While all citizens have the right to be heard and to peaceful assembly, the exercise of these rights cannot impinge on the rights of others or cause inconvenience to anyone, lalo na yung mga kababayan nating pauwi sa kanilang mga tahanan para magpahinga at makasama ang kanilang mga pamilya (especially our fellowmen who are going home to rest and spend time with their families),” Roxas said in a statement.
“The PNP (Philippine National Police) is duty-bound to ensure that the safety and general welfare of the public is maintained, and this includes making sure opportunists do not try to take advantage of the situation for personal ends. Let us remember that ours is a Rule of Law and not of men,” Roxas, who lost his vice presidential bid in 2010 despite an INC endorsement, added.
Malacañang on Saturday said President Aquino has instructed Roxas to work with the police and local government units affected by the ongoing mass action to ensure public order and safety.
“Roxas met with officials of Quezon City and Mandaluyong City, as well as officials of the PNP on how they can move forward with regards to the protest action of INC members,” Deputy Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a radio interview.
She said the President specifically wanted the mass action to become orderly, peaceful and not disrupt other people who are not part of the mass action, Valte told the state-run Radyo ng Bayan.
“The President’s instructions were to ensure the safety of the public including … not just those who were involved in the protest, but more importantly, those who are uninvolved in the protest,” she said.
“The President mentioned specifically that government should ensure — at least, the executive branch — that there are no opportunities for those who may want to take advantage of the situation for their personal end.”
Valte also said they have been informed that the Mandaluyong City Hall has issued a permit to the INC to hold a rally.
Mandaluyong City Mayor Benjamin Abalos Jr. has granted a rally permit that expires on Sunday.
The PNP raised the alert status of its forces in Metro Manila.
“The PNP leadership is monitoring the situation from its national headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City and we are waiting for further waiting for developments on the INC vigil/rally,” Chief Supt. Wilben Mayor, the police spokesman, said in a text message.
Church officials are not sure when their protest will end.
“Wala pang kasiguraduhan kung hanggang kailan magtatagal ito, tanging ang mga taga pamahala ng INC ang magsasabi kung hanggang kailan itong peaceful assembly [We are not sure yet when our peaceful assembly would end, because only the INC management could give orders on how long it would last],” INC spokesperson Edwin Zabala told Net25.
Church members from the Bicol region were reportedly on the way to Metro Manila to join the protest while INC chapters in Mindanao are planning to launch a similar protest at the DOJ office in Davao City.
Protesters massed at the EDSA-Shaw Boulevard intersection on Saturday morning were made to watch a talk show aired by the INC-owned Net25 channel that featured former congressman and church member Rodante Marcoleta.
Marcoleta said De Lima should focus on other important issues rather than the complaints filed against the leadership of the church.
“Gusto niyang yugyugin ang kaisahan ng Iglesia. May binabalak siguro sila diyan. Baka ngayon pa lang sinasabi namin ay baka kayo ang mayugyog namin” Marcoleta said.
“Dumating ang isang Isaiah Samson, bakit naging importante at unsual ang pagpapahalaga mo sa isang itiniwalag na ministro…Iiwan mo ba ang mga nakakabinbin na kaso para lang sa isang reklamo ng Samson? Dapat palitan ang pangalan ng kanyang departamento, Dapat Department of Injustice or Department of Selective Justice.” he added.
Marcoleta was referring to Samson, an expelled church minister who claimed he was abducted and detained on orders of church officials.
Several INC members were also going around seeking signatures for an online petition against de Lima through the website Change.org.
Marcoleta also criticized ABS-CBN news anchor Ces Drilon for her alleged “biased reporting”.
“Ces Drilon, kung dinadakila mo ang iyong trabaho, yung ethics ng pamamahayag mo, dapat ay maging objective ka sa pamamahayag mo na dapat ay patungkol sa bayan. Bakit ang iniinterview mo ay puro tiwalag.” he said.
A Net25 news report said INC members are no longer watching ABS-CBN news programs because of alleged unfair reporting.
Unidentified men reportedly manhandled an ABS-CBN cameraman and a radio reporter from GMA Network who were covering the protest.
Cameraman Melchor Pinlac said he was shooting a video of the protest at the EDSA Shrine when he was grabbed by the neck, then was punched in the jaw, body as the crowd chanted “biased, biased,” radio station dzMM said.
Olan Bola, a reporter of radio station dzBB, was also shoved around when he tried to pacify the mob.
By noon, the protest program shifted to a concert-like assembly amid heavy rain.
Organizers also showed the trailer of a film based on the life story of INC founder Felix Manalo starring actor Dennis Trillo.
WITH CATHERINE S. VALENTE, JACQUELINE BOUVIER ARIAS, FRANCIS EARL A. CUETO AND ANTHONY VARGAS