Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Random Notes on the Iglesia ni Cristo

Some days ago, I was at the library poring through pages and pages of old newspapers from the 1950s. These were generally happier times for the Philippines; the country was rich and still glowing somewhat from its colonial experience under the United States. The Church, too, was healthier, having been invigorated by the Irish American priests, and finding a renewed confidence after the anti-clerical revolution that threatened it just half a century earlier. There was one article, though, that stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the advertisements for American soap, American clothes, and American cars; it was a small blurb about a fiesta gone awry, after a certain religious group crashed the party.

I am speaking, of course, of the Iglesia ni Cristo, a homegrown Arian sect which claims to be the true Church. The article described how a town procession in honor of its patron saint gradually became heated, after the priest and some of his acolytes were accosted by the INC ministers. The minister complained that the priest was always ringing the church bells whenever the Iglesia would gather in the plaza, which was always configured so that it faced the church. Of course, the priest countered that it was his duty to prevent the people from sharing in their perfidies and heresies; the article then went on to describe how an Iglesia member got boxed in the face by an acolyte, after which, the trouble ensued. The details are not clear to me right now, and I regret not being able to bring my notebook with me to jot down further notes about the story, but it is safe to say that the Iglesia members retreated, having been faced with a larger Catholic crowd.

The INC has been in the news recently, after their 'executive minister' Erano 'Ka Erdy' Manalo entered eternity eight days ago. The Iglesia is considered a 'kingmaker' in the Philippines; its members vote as a bloc, and their two to three million members are definitely a boost to any ambitious politician. Thus, practically all the pages in the dailies for the past week have had some message of condolence or 'pakikiramay' from some ambitious politico seeking reelection. This is definitely a far cry from forty or even thirty years ago, when whole towns would, under the leadership of the local government, even, try to repel any INC presence in their respective dominions. Church bells were rung whenever the INC ministers would proselytize at the plazas, ministers were physically removed from their homes and ordered to find somewhere else to peddle their wares; in some cases, INC members would also report having feces thrown at them.

Today, the level of antagonism has toned down somewhat, but there exists a certain level of caution, especially among older Catholics, when dealing with the Iglesia. As a pre-school student, I remember there being a poster showing the different religions of the Philippines in one corner of our classroom. At the very bottom of the poster was the Iglesia, and my teachers would reprimand me whenever I would look at it long enough. If I misbehaved, for example, they would tell me 'Ibibigay na kita sa mga Iglesia king 'di ka pa tumigil!' (I will give you to the Iglesia if you don't stop!). There was a certain menace associated with them; my grandparents would always tell me that the INC members worshipped Manalo as a living god, and that their ministers were violent people, who kept high-powered firearms in their sacristies (or whatever they called it). Last year, a former member of the Iglesia who had 'switched' over to join its rival sect 'Ang Dating Daan' ('The Ancient Path')was gunned down while on the way to Manila. Immediately, and perhaps instinctively, the ADD members 'knew' that the Iglesia was behind it.

As a Catholic, I guess I've always taken my membership in the Church for granted. Culturally, Catholicism is a force, a superstructure that one just cannot escape from, not in this lifetime, and not in the immediate lifetimes to come. It is too pervasive, too 'everyday' that to imagine a person growing up outside its sphere of influence would be almost impossible. Some Protestant sects in the Philippines, for example, continue to refer to the Blessed Virgin as 'Blessed Mary' or 'the Virgin Mary'; there are also Evangelical groups that follow the structure of Catholic Holy Week. But the Iglesia is simply different. For one, its Arian doctrines certainly place it outside the realm of traditional Christian belief. Their government is centered around the reclusive 'Executive Minister', whom they claim is the last prophet of God; I found it funny, though, when the remains of Manalo were brought into a gigantic structure in the INC's main compound which they called the Tabernacle. Natch, Manalo's body was placed in a tomb itself placed on an elevated area, with rows of chairs on both side for the ministers to keep watch over him.

I didn't watch the ceremony in whole, since I had a busy schedule ahead. I was intrigued, however, when a loud wailing escaped the throats of the congregated INC members. Whenever the pallbearers would move the body of Manalo, it was sure to be followed by a series of loud wailing and mourning. Perhaps, since the Iglesia do not believe in the communion of saints, and teaches that prayers for the dead are the Devil's work, this was the next best thing for them. Terribly cathartic. I finally switched off the television as I still had two papers to finish and an exam for which to study.

I am suddenly reminded, although as to the connection I am not exactly clear myself, of an incident that occurred at my grandparents' home some twenty years ago when I was but a few months old. Naturally, I do not have any recollection of the event, but I have always heard this anecdote being passed around by family. The story goes that my grandparents once opened up part of their home to serve as bed and board for some university students. One of them, however, always looked uneasy when entering that part of the house. They later found out that the girl was a member of the INC; so they made sure to give her special roles during the evening devotions, such as lighting the candles in the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and having her stitch some veils for my grandmother's church group. I honestly don't know if the girl converted to Catholicism, but I think it was a valiant effort. People used to believe in religion, and not just what religion can do for oneself. One really wonders why the Church has scarcely paid attention to this sect, since, as anyone can attest, a vast majority of the Iglesia's members are former Catholics. If anything, Manalo's death should remind us of that.


christopher said...

A great piece, fascinating as always here.

eh? said...

hmm, i what to remind the readers that this article is just the opinion of the author and most of the informations stated are not proven as truth. =)

i don't know who the author of this article is but i'm pretty sure about what i've said