More than 200,000 members of an influential Philippine religious sect met for rallies Tuesday, police said, amid perceived political tension with its once staunch ally President Benigno Aquino.
olice shut major roads in Manila from midday (0400 GMT) and deployed about 500 officers as tens of thousands of Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) members trooped to a seaside park in the capital.
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The three million-strong sect is one of a handful of religious groups courted by politicians of all stripes during election campaigns for its massive block vote that gives it huge 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.
But Aquino said Tuesday the conservative sect had assured him the rallies 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.
The INC leadership earlier said the activity is not a political rally in support of Corona.
“This religious activity is one of the means by which the Church propagates the teachings of God in the Bible that members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo believe to be essential for man’s salvation,” INC spokesman Bienvenido Santiago said.
He noted that the gathering and the impeachment trial were only coincidental; stressing the 2012 has been marked as the evangelical mission year.
IGLESIA NI CRISTO
Iglesia ni Cristo was founded in 1914 by Felix Manalo, the father of its current leader. Manalo proclaimed himself God’s last prophet, and claimed that God has sent him to re-establish the church because the original church (which Manalo claimed was the Catholic Church) had become apostate.
To this day Iglesia ni Cristo — Tagalog for “Church of Christ” — claims to be the only true Church established by Christ. It claims salvation is available only to those who join it.
The church does not publish official membership numbers, but in the 2000 Philippine Census Iglesia ni Cristo had 1,762,845 members.
Since then it has grown to three million members in the Philippines and abroad. 747 of its 5,121 congregations are based in 93 countries.
While theologically considered to be a cult of Christianity, sociologically the movement has cult-like elements as well. Among other things members are told to vote en-bloc. Church attendance is compulsory, and members must avoid trade unions and court sessions.