THE OFFICIAL reasons given by Iglesia ni Cristo officials and spokespersons for the protest actions that began on Thursday—first at the Department of Justice in Manila, then at the Edsa Shrine in Quezon City, and then since Saturday at the intersection of Edsa and Shaw in Mandaluyong—do not make sense. They do not stand logical or legal scrutiny. Instead, they betray the surge of panic that has overtaken some of the leaders of the influential church.
To begin, not at the beginning, but at the end: The protest organizers misunderstand the longstanding doctrine of the separation of church and state, which is the main reason they have offered to justify their collective mass action. That doctrine does not mean that offenses committed internally—that is, inside the church or within the congregation—cannot be investigated by the state; if a crime is involved, or alleged, then by definition that kind of violation is an offense against “the people,” and the state is duty-bound to investigate the matter. If evidence exists of the crime, the state must prosecute the guilty to the fullest extent, to meet the ends of justice.
The separation doctrine the officials of the Iglesia ni Cristo are invoking do not grant them, or indeed any leader or member of any church, an exemption from that fundamental principle: No one is above the law.
Last week, the family of a former highly placed minister of the Iglesia ni Cristo filed a case for serious illegal detention against eight members of the church’s governing council. Isaias Samson Jr., the former chief editor of the official Iglesia publication, and his wife and son sued the officials—allegedly for detaining them for nine days in July in their own home, holding them incommunicado, confiscating their passports and subjecting them to repeated interrogation. (In the blog of the whistle-blower using the pseudonym Antonio Ramirez Ebangelista, the eight are identified as Glicerio Santos Jr., Radel Cortez, Bienvenido Santiago Sr., Mathusalem Pareja, Rolando Esguerra, Eraño Codera, Rodelio Cabrerra and Maximo Bularan.) The nightmare happened because Samson was suspected of being the whistle-blower Ebangelista, and it ended only when the family escaped.
What did Ebangelista blow the whistle on? That top officials of the powerful and affluent church had engaged in systematic corruption. The crisis broke wide open when the mother and the brother of the Iglesia ni Cristo’s own executive minister, Eduardo V. Manalo, aired a video on YouTube, claiming that their lives were in real danger; the mother, widow of the second and longest-serving leader of the church, even pleaded for an audience with her oldest son.
About a month later, on Aug. 25, the Samson family filed their case. By Aug. 26, word that the Iglesia ni Cristo was planning to picket the Department of Justice began to spread. On Aug. 27, the Iglesia ni Cristo protests hit the streets. How can the Iglesia officials accuse De Lima of bias and giving “excessive attention” to the case? The process has only started.
How can the Iglesia officials accuse De Lima of bias and giving “excessive attention” to the case? The process has only started.
By Aug. 28, the official response had morphed into a set of justifications: By accepting the case (as of course De Lima was bound by her obligations to do), the justice secretary was supposed to have acted with evident bias. Why? Because she had failed to act in other cases. Hence, the repeated and strategic mention in the Edsa protest actions of the Mamasapano incident and the death of the 44 Special Action Force troopers, as well as other high-profile cases De Lima had allegedly failed to attend to. This bag of reasons has a gaping hole at the bottom: It assumes that the Department of Justice can work on only one case at a time. And it is proof of classic misdirection. This is not about the separation of church and state; it is simply, emphatically, about holding powerful people to account, under the laws that govern us all.
The Iglesia ni Cristo is served by able counsel; indeed, in the last 15 years or so, two of their lawyers have preceded De Lima in her seat. The eight officials involved could have taken the legal route. Instead, they and the protest organizers rushed to drag their members and their church’s own good name through the mud, all to avoid the necessary accounting. Patent, and painful, nonsense.
Editors’ Note. The original version of the editorial began by stating that the protest actions started on Friday, instead of Thursday. This mistake has been corrected as of 9:44 am. Our apologies for the error.
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