Tuesday, 28 February 2012 23:58
Manila: About 600,000 members of an influential sect held rallies in the Philippines yesterday, police said, in a show of force amid perceived political tension with once staunch ally President Benigno Aquino.
Police shut major roads in Manila from midday (0400 GMT) and deployed hundreds of officers as about 200,000 members of the religious group Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) gathered at a seaside park in the capital.
Officers monitored similar gatherings in two other cities, including one of 400,000 people massed in Tarlac, Aquino’s home province, said national police spokesman Agrimero Cruz.
“The situation is peaceful,” said Cruz, who also reported 7,000 sect members at a park in the central city of Cebu. The three million-strong sect is one of a handful of religious groups courted by politicians of all stripes during election campaigns, with its massive vote block handing increasing its political clout. Local media said Aquino’s previously strong ties with the sect have soured since Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona — who has indirect links to the Iglesia — was impeached in December, stirring condemnation from the group.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer on Tuesday quoted an unnamed sect insider as saying despite the group’s public statements to the contrary, the rallies were meant to show its unhappiness with Aquino.
“It seems Malacanang (presidential palace) is not getting the message of the church. This is just another way to show our displeasure,” it quoted the source as saying.
Aquino also fired sect member Magtanggol Gatdula as National Bureau of Investigation chief last month after the official was accused of covering up the abduction of a Japanese woman by his aides.
Iglesia spokesman Bienvenido Santiago could not be reached for comment yesterday after being quoted by local media as saying the rallies would be purely religious in nature.
Aquino also played down the motives of the rallies, saying the conservative sect had assured him they were purely religious events leading up to the 100th anniversary of its founding next year.
“There are others who are saying that there is a political dimension here,” Aquino told reporters.
“Their official communication to us is this is part of their religious obligations and part of their faith,” he added, stressing that the sect had helped him win the 2010 election.
Aquino said that politicians would normally be welcome to join the rally but he had been advised to stay away to avoid giving “a political tinge” to the event and detracting from its “religious intention.”
No overt political comments were made at the rally which came as the Senate was holding a trial on whether Corona’s impeachment was valid.
Led by Eduardo Manalo, grandson of its late founder Felix Manalo, the sect exerts huge political influence in Philippines, home to more than 75m Catholics.
While Aquino can not stand for a second six-year term, the sect’s block vote could have on impact on the electoral success of his political allies in next year’s midterm Congressional polls.
Iglesia members have been leading rallies backing Corona, who could lose his job if convicted in an ongoing impeachment trial on charges of graft and illegally favouring Aquino rival and predecessor Gloria Arroyo.
The Manila rally ended without incident at 7:00pm (1100 GMT).
Meanwhile, after “special permits” were given by the government for buses to transport those who flocked to the prayer rally of Iglesia ni Cristo, many passengers along Edsa and other parts of Metro Manila ended up getting stranded in the morning because many of these buses were “diverted” from their usual routes. In Metro Manila alone, 647 buses were granted these permits by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) to travel outside their usual routes.
Lawyer Manuel Iway, LTFRB board member, said a total of 86 buses were granted these permits from Regions, 1, 2, 3, 4-A and 4-B.
The grand evangelical mission was held at the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park, one of 18 sites all over the country for the gathering of members of the religious group.