Questions and conspiracy theories were in the air after an official of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC or Church of Christ) announced on Monday that the religious group is ending its protest at the EDSA-Shaw Boulevard intersection in Mandaluyong City (Metro Manila) after a “successful” holding of talks between the church’s leaders and government officials.
INC general evangelist Bienvenido Santiago made the announcement over church-owned television channel Net 25.
“Nais po naming ipabatid sa inyong lahat na nagkausap na po ang panig ng Iglesia at ang panig pamahalaan. At sa pag-uusap na ito ay nagkapaliwanagan na po ang dalawang panig. Kaya payapa na po ang lahat [We would like to tell you all that representatives of the Iglesia and the government have met and had clarified the issues. All is now well],” Santiago said.
INC spokesman Edwil Zabala said he was not privy to what was discussed in the meeting between the government panel led by no less than President Benigno Aquino 3rd and a representative of the INC that was held Sunday evening until past midnight.
Malacañang later in the day said there was no deal forged.
“There was no deal struck, as some insinuate. The talks gave both sides an opportunity to clarify issues and concerns,” Palace deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said in a brief statement.
Critics of the Aquino administration, however, did not take Valte’s statement hook, line and sinker.
“The people are interested in the deal, if any, struck by the Aquino government and the influential INC in relation to the criminal case filed versus leaders of the group. Were there concessions given by Aquino to the INC? Did it involve Mar Roxas and the 2016 elections?
What were the terms agreed upon? Government owes the public at least an explanation,” Renato Reyes Jr., secretary-general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), said in a statement.
Mar is Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd, the ruling Liberal Party’s standard-bearer in the 2016 elections.
Malacanang spokesman Edwin Lacierda issued a separate statement on the matter, hinting that a “long-term solution” and “goodwill” have caused the INC members who gathered on EDSA to voluntarily disperse.
“This was an important consideration for the government: Just as it was important to protect the rights of all, ensure public safety, and minimize opportunities for sowing mayhem, we knew that a truly long-term solution involved engendering an atmosphere of dialogue, which will result in deescalating the situation that created tensions in the first place,” the Palace official said.
Lacierda added that the national government had to step in to immediately defuse tensions because some sectors have started to manipulate the situation.
“We were resolved not to inflame passions, which could have given an opening to those with selfish agendas to further exacerbate conflict. Diplomacy therefore was an important tool in avoiding unintended consequences,” he explained.
Lacierda said the conflict was resolved “through goodwill and the convergence of efforts.”
“The rule of law has been upheld. We appreciate the INC leadership’s directives for the withdrawal of their members from their gathering sites. We are thankful that no serious injuries came about these past few days, and that the public can now prepare to go to work and to school tomorrow as the long weekend draws to a close,” he added.
Lawyers for expelled INC minister Isaias Samson Jr., who had filed illegal detention charges against the members of the INC Sanggunian (Council of Leaders), called on President Benigno Aquino 3rd as well as Roxas to disclose to the public the deal forged with the INC.
In a statement, lawyers Trixie Cruz-Angeles and Ahmed Paglinawan asked about the nature of the alleged agreement, and why their client, “who had unintentionally set off these events by filing his case,” was not included in it.
“Tell us whether or not you’ve sold our client down the river… you need to disclose this to us. A criminal case is not a political pawn,” they said.
The lawyers also asked the government to “guarantee our client a fair hearing at preliminary investigation,” saying that finding the case filed by Samson to have no probable cause is now “a very real possibility.”
They said the announcement made the INC on the matter is a way for them “to make the public feel that they had flexed their muscle and the government has responded in a manner favorable to them.”
Malacanang was mum on whether such a deal involved either the dropping of charges against the INC ministers or the group supporting Roxas, the administration party’s presidential bet in next year’s polls.
Aquino convened senior officials, including some members of the Cabinet, police and military officials, in an emergency meeting at the President’s official residence in Malacañang Park on Sunday night and met with an INC representative, Erano “Erdz” Codera, the church’s political liaison officer.
Also in the meeting were Roxas, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and National Police Director-General Ricardo Marquez.
INC members initially massed up in front of the Department of Justice (DOJ) compound along Padre Faura Street (Manila) last Thursday and held an overnight vigil. They were protesting the state’s alleged medding in the church’s internal affairs when de Lima ordered an investigation of the alleged kidnapping and detention of Samson.
On Friday night, the protesters marched to EDSA-Shaw Boulevard intersection and linked up with groups that assembled in staging areas at SM Megamall and Our Lady of EDSA Shrine.
The protesters were reinforced by other church members who were bused in from nearby provinces.
The protest caused a massive traffic jam that has angered motorists and commuters and triggered verbal skirmishes in the social media.
Police estimated the crowd to have swelled to over 15,000 before President Aquino called the meeting.
Roxas said there were people who wanted to take advantage of the INC protest for their personal motives
Roxas in a statement indicated that sobriety prevailed and prevented anybody from getting hurt.
Military officials heaved a sigh of relief that the INC rally did not swell because if it did, some “opportunists” could have taken advantage of the situation and create a violent scenario like detonating a bom.
“Sa amin naman kasi, yun ang cause of apprehension lang naming. Baka may mga taong gustong mag-take advantage ng situation. Na kasi would you imagine kung may nagpasabog dun e di sakit ng ulo namin dun [On our part, that is the cause of apprehension. Some people may take advantage of the situation. Just imagine if someone lobbed explosives on the crowd, it would be a big headache for us],” said a military officer who was among those assigned to “infiltrate” the crowd.
While the military, he said, has not received any information on terrorists or the Left sabotaging the rally, he made it sure that any terror attack would not be carried out.
“That’s what we want to contain. Remember the Plaza Miranda bombing. If similar situation occurred [in the rally], the government will always be the one to be blamed. What we were trying to prevent is that the peaceful rally would turn violent,” he pointed out.
Another military official described the rally as a “defense mechanism” of the INC because it was afraid of the implication of the serious illegal detention charges against its leaders.
Pre-election survey frontrunner Sen. Grace Poe was dragged into the INC controversy after Samson’s lawyers said she might have violated the law when she urged the Justice department to just focus on other cases, instead of on the criminal complaints filed against officials and members of the INC.
Poe had said the department should give attention to other cases like the Mamasapano incident.
Lawyer Trixie Angeles said Poe’s statement last Friday could constitute a criminal offense under Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
Poe’s chief-of-staff immediately issued a statement to counter the allegation.
“Sen. Poe did not persuade, induce or influence Secretary de Lima to commit any violation of the law,” Nelson Victorino said in a statement.
“In her statements, she did not even suggest that Secretary de Lima stop the investigation of the complaint against INC personalities,” he added.
“It is an act of graft if someone asks the [Justice department] not to act on a criminal complaint,” Angeles said in a statement.
She cited Section 3 (a) of the law that considers as a crime any act of “persuading, inducing or influencing another public officer to perform an act constituting a violation of rules and regulations duly promulgated by competent authority or an offense in connection with the official duties of the latter, or allowing himself to be persuaded, induced, or influenced to commit such violation or offense.”
Angeles said instead of asking the Department of Justice to make a priority other cases over the INC complaints, Poe should have called for respect for the rule of law and legal processes.