May 4, 2016

All 5 candidates still wooing INC support


TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
May 4th, 2016
ALL FIVE presidential candidates have knocked at the door of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) to seek its endorsement, a sign the 101-year-old homegrown religious sect still commands political influence with a perceived ability to summon its faithful to vote as a bloc.

Vice President Jejomar Binay, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Sen. Grace Poe, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago and former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas separately met with INC executive minister Eduardo Manalo or other INC officials during the final 30-day campaign.

So far, the INC hierarchy has not spoken on its choice.

But the much-vaunted INC vote—a pollster estimated that some 1.7 million members are voting in Monday's national elections from 1.5 million in 2010—may no longer be rock-solid after a tumultuous year, expelled members said.

The sect was wracked by division last year following reports of abduction, harassment and expulsion of ministers critical of its governing council, and allegations of corruption against some of its leaders.

"Our group will not carry whomever INC will endorse," Joy Yuson said by phone, referring to the self-styled "church defenders," whose members have raised questions about the INC leadership.

"We're split," said Yuson, a minister who was expelled in 2014 after his wife spoke about INC corruption with other members. "The situation at INC is abnormal."

Expelled minister Isaias Samson Jr., who stirred up a hornet's nest last year when he accused the INC governing council, Sanggunian, of detaining him, his wife and son, also weighed in on the matter.

"I truly believe that because of the recent controversies and increase in the number of 'silent defenders,' the church vote will not be solid anymore," Samson said in an interview by e-mail.

Yuson, Samson and another expelled member, Lowell Menorca II, pointed to the significant drop in offerings at worship services as a sign of the waning support for the INC hierarchy.

The online plea for help by the widow and son of the late INC executive minister Eraño Manalo in July last year, and subsequent reports of harassment of INC members set off a furor among some members.

While many stayed in the church and continued to attend the worship services, their "money offering has gone down tremendously," observed Samson, an ordained minister for 43 years prior to his expulsion.

Dismay


It's "an expression of their dismay and belief that there is rampant corruption in the church and that the church fund goes to the pockets of corrupt church officials," he added.

INC leaders had been accused of skimming off collections in the United States, profiting from the construction of the $200-million Philippine Arena in Bulacan province, and flying in style in their own aircraft, among others. They denied the charges.

Menorca, who has also accused the INC hierarchy of abducting, threatening and harassing him, and is now seeking conditional refugee status in Canada, agreed.

"They manifest their protest through other ways including reduced church offerings during worship services, the impact of which is felt by the organization worldwide," he said in a separate interview by e-mail.

The thin crowd that turned up at the four-day rally called by the INC hierarchy at the Department of Justice (DOJ) compound, and later, on the major thoroughfare Edsa in August last year in protest over the DOJ's undue attention to Samson's case against the INC hierarchy was also a telling sign of some members' waning support for the hierarchy, Samson said.

The charges filed by Samson were dismissed.

Menorca said he shared the sentiments of the INC "thinking voters," and that had he not left the country, he would have voted for the candidate "who is not afraid to stand for what is right, even if he has to go against the powerful and influential INC."

"Otherwise, I will just perpetuate the worsening corruption festering the church right now, in partnership with politicians it helped put in power," he said.

INC spokesperson Edwil Zabala dismissed as a "nonissue" the detractors' claims on the lack of a solid vote.

"We do not force our beliefs upon nonmembers. Iglesia ni Cristo maintains its organizational unity for the faithful and our activities will speak for us," he said in a text message.

In the same breath, Zabala, however, said the "nonmembers" were "free to do what they want."

On claims that the drop in offerings was proof of the waning support for INC, he said: "We are confident that for as long as we limit ourselves to facts based on evidence, Iglesia ni Cristo will continue to be vindicated against our detractors."

To the claim that a vote for the INC candidate was a vote to perpetuate corruption, he said: "That may not be an observation but the intention of those who say so. We shall see."

"For every tribulation the church has endured the past century, we have emerged much stronger. We believe that the Church is upheld by the Lord, and we abide by his guidance. His grace is enough for us," he added.

In a tightly fought race, the INC vote would be crucial.

Culling data from exit polls in the 2010 presidential election, Mahar Mangahas of Social Weather Stations said that an estimated 1.53 million INC members voted in the balloting that year, and this could rise to 1.7 million this year, factoring in the population growth of 2 percent a year.

That election year, INC voters went 77.1 percent for the then eventual winner, Benigno Aquino III, and 12 percent for Joseph Estrada. The 77 percent was the "extent of unity of the INC vote," Mangahas wrote in September 2015.

INC has been voting as a bloc since the time of Felix Y. Manalo, founder of INC, according to Samson.

To clinch the endorsement, the candidate must be "liked" by the members, does not oppress INC in favor of another religion and must be doing well in the poll surveys, Samson said.

Winnability


Menorca added that INC also ran its own internal survey in certain locales to determine the "winnability" of a candidate.

The results of the survey are deliberated upon in different levels until they reach the desk of the executive minister. These would hold unless there are "private negotiations" with candidates for Congress, Vice President and President, he said.

With the help of the surveys, it's rare that INC flubbed its choices. It happened though in 1992 when its candidate, businessman Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., lost to Fidel V. Ramos.

"Nobody knows whom a member has voted for. But because unity in the polls is a part of the doctrine about unity being one body of Christ, thus, it is a grievous sin to destroy it, the members adhere to it religiously," Samson said.

Cracks within the sect began to show since Cristina "Tenny" Manalo and her son, Angel, posted an online plea for help in July last year, claiming their lives were in danger.

Soon after, some INC ministers and members, including Samson and Menorca, came out to accuse the INC governing council of illegal expulsion, detention and abduction, charges that were denied by the INC leaders.

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