MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/31 August) — Except for the rally that started on Thursday last week and ended on Monday morning, I don’t know of another incident in the past where members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo poured out into the streets to hold protest actions. As far as I can remember, this sect, founded by a self-anointed prophet, generally frowns on the idea of openly confronting the state. Since Martial Law at least, it has had kept to itself, finding comfort and security in remaining apolitical but for its tradition of obliging [its] members to vote for certain candidates in exchange for specific favors.
However, something happened that forced the INC leadership out of seclusion. Its leaders knew they were throwing the organization outside of its comfort zone, a shortcoming they hoped to offset with their ability to coerce thousands of members to follow orders or risk damnation. Their direct target was Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who, as a matter of duty, accepted the complaint of illegal detention against some INC leaders filed by an ostracized minister.
In reality, though, they were challenging the dictum that holds together social order – rule of law. Worse, they invoked the constitutional principle of separation of church and state to hide their real agenda, which is to force government into dropping the case against the respondent INC leaders. In effect, they were demanding that the state keep its hands off when it comes to matters that are “internal” to the church, which may include criminal acts like illegal detention. (At least one blog maintained by somebody who claims to be a former INC member even alleges that its leaders would resort to killing recalcitrant members, gangland style, if it serves the purpose of protecting its image and interest.)
The INC must be thinking they had the odds in their favor. De Lima, who has declared she will run for the Senate, wouldn’t risk losing the solid Iglesia vote. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, President Aquino’s anointed successor, wouldn’t order the police to disperse them for the same reason. They must have anticipated too that other politicians would speak – and did speak – in their favor. In other words, they acted on the presumption that things would happen as they had wished.
Senator Grace Poe and Vice President Jejomar Binay defended the INC’s move. Couple Peping and Tingting Cojuangco, close relatives of Aquino who had fallen from the good graces of Malacanang, also pandered to Manalo’s cult. Roxas said something about respecting the rule of law. De Lima, meanwhile, held her ground, although if there is truth to speculations that the Palace and the INC have arrived at a settlement, she too could have changed tune already lest she loses her slot in the administration ticket.
Unfortunately for the INC and for the politicians who sided with it, no amount of PR could assuage public ire at the traffic jams caused by the protest action. The backlash was to be expected. Aside from the fact that this is a predominantly Catholic country the INC’s agenda for taking to the streets was anything but worth sympathizing with. They were trying to blackmail government with next year’s election as the proverbial sword of Damocles. And, depending on how deep public resentment has grown, an INC endorsement might prove to be a political death warrant from this stage onward. In fact, with the exposé on how the sect is being run from the inside, self-respecting members may stage acts of defiance against their leaders either openly or in a discreet manner.
Indeed, there exists the likelihood that several of its members are now questioning the moral propriety of following the political imposition of their leaders. If disillusionment and the desire for reforms spreads across the congregation fast enough, the bloc voting system, which is being peddled as divinely inspired, would cease to be a factor in future elections. There may even come a time that an INC endorsement would serve as a kiss of death.
But until and unless that happens, the INC will remain a thorn on the exercise of genuine electoral democracy. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)