Described as a cult by its detractors, Iglesia Ni Cristo has been implicated in criminal activity, including assassinations in the Philippines: now it’s setting its sights on Africa.
Just the Basics
Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) is a Filipino megachurch founded over a century ago whose founder claims to be God’s last messenger
The INC has been implicated in criminal activities and murders and maintains strict control over the lives of its adherents
The church has spread across the world and is focusing its attention on Africa, presenting potential dangers to local communities
On Sunday mornings in South Africa churches across the country are packed with the faithful. In one neighbourhood in Cape Town, parishioners make the journey to the local church. Devoid of a steeple and surrounded by a white picket fence, the church exudes an unassuming air. Donning their Sunday best, worshippers file into the church, passing under a large seal emblazoned with the words Iglesia ni Cristo.
To anyone casting a casual glance, the phrase might be in Latin, a common enough occurence in many churches. Closer observation reveals something surprising: the writing is not in Latin, not even in Spanish - it’s Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines. Inside, the Southeast Asian hints are even more visible - the preacher leading the congregation is Filipino; one of many who have travelled to South Africa (and beyond) to spread the good news.
Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) - or the Church of Christ in English - is a sect from the Philippines that has set its sights on global expansion, with Africa seen as a key growth market. Despite being relative newcomers to Africa, back in the Philippines, the INC is a force to be reckoned with, boasting millions of followers and wielding considerable ecclesiastical and political power. The first INC congregation in South Africa was founded in 1977 by Rogelio M. Rafals, a doctor with the UN Development Program. Initially seeking out fellow Filipinos in the area, Rafals eventually received permission from the INC back in the Philippines to minister to the local population as well.
By 2015, the INC had a presence in nine African countries, with that number jumping to sixteen just a year later. 2018 has seen further rapid growth, with INC General Auditor Gilcerio B. Santos Jr. stating that “we’re sweeping both Northern and Southern Africa as we reach out to INC members and non-members alike.” Whereas the activities of Iglesia Ni Cristo look like yet another wave of foreign missionary work in Africa, the INC’s controversial reputation makes their expansion into Africa of particular concern.
Iglesia Ni Cristo and the personality cult of its Executive Minister
In order to understand the INC’s background and why its overseas expansion is viewed with suspicion by some, we need to leave Africa for the time being and return to the Philippines. The brainchild of one Felix Y. Manalo, the INC came into being in 1914 with Manalo as the church’s executive minister. INC teaching exalts Manalo as God’s last messenger, and that only members of the Church will be saved come the Rapture, for (in the INC’s view) all other Christian denominations have watered down Christ’s teachings.
“It’s comforting to know that we have salvation already promised because we are part of [Iglesia Ni Cristo],” says Johannesburg INC member Jabulile Mbonambi. “If I was told tomorrow that I have to go to a very deserted area just so that I could be a part of anything to do with the Church, it doesn’t matter. I won’t even think twice. I’ll just go because my membership mean my life to me.”
Claims about the exclusivity of salvation are commonplace, with many Christian denominations viewing other sects as residing outside the ‘true church’. Manalo’s claims about being the penultimate prophet (and the INC’s unitarianism - the rejection of the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity) are definitely harder to square with the teachings of traditional Christianity, although not without precedent, as seen by the founding of Mormonism by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century. The comparison with Mormonism is an apt one, as most mainstream Christian churches consider the two as offshoots of Christianity. Both groups have also been tarred as cults by their detractors.
Alongside claims about Manalo’s position as God’s final messenger, the INC is based on the claims in Revelations 7:2 which describe the re-establishment of the Church in the Far East, with an angel approaching “having the seal of the living God.” The leadership of the Iglesia Ni Cristo maintains that Felix (and now the INC) possess this seal, thus distinguishing them as the chosen saved. Consequently, the INC prevents its members from individual interpretation of the Bible, with an INC hymn proclaiming: “And the teachings of God; To the Messenger only were given; He is the only one who has the right to teach the truth.” Manalo claimed, and the INC’s successive executive ministers continue to claim, ownership of the Seventh Seal and its attendant authority as their prerogative.
INC under Eduardo Manalo experiences rapid growth
By the time of Felix Manalo’s death in 1963, the INC had 1,250 local chapels and thirty-five cathedrals across the Philippines. The latest census figures from 2010 show over 2.5 million INC worshippers in the Philippines, equivalent to 2.45 percent of the country's population, and the INC’s central Temple in Quezon City is the largest place of worship in the Philippines, with a seating capacity of some 7,000. Manalo was succeeded by his son Erano Manalo, who lead the INC until his death in 2009. He in turn has been succeeded by his son, Eduardo Manalo (hereafter Manalo), who has overseen the church’s rapid international expansion. The INC has opened 1,155 new chapels in the last six years alone, 64 of which are outside the Philippines.
The proliferation of INC churches in the Philippines during Manalo’s time has been mirrored by a growing number for publicity stunts, including a fondness for breaking world records, such as the largest human sentence; largest charity walk in a single venue; and most number of blood pressure readings in eight hours. Critics of these public displays say they distract from the ostensible charity work being undertaken, being more about impressing the faithful and non-members alike. Specifically, critics maintain that the INC’s grandiose charitable acts contain an ulterior motive, namely to instil a “debt of gratitude” among recipients, thus pressuring them to support or join the church in return.
While similar claims could also be made against other organizations, this penchant for grand gestures has already caused controversy in Africa. In March 2017, the INC was suspended with immediate effect in Zambia after eight persons were killed during a stampede for free food being distributed by the church. In addition, Zambia’s Minister for Religious and National Guidance, Rev. Godfridah Sumaili claimed the church failed to show that it had all the necessary legal documentation on conduct operations in the country.
Despite these misgiving both at home and abroad, in recent years the INC has been honoured with postage stamps commemorating the deaths of its two former executive ministers: 2014 was also declared the ‘Year of Iglesia Ni Cristo’ by the Philippine government in honour of the church’s 100th anniversary. Some Philippine banknotes from 2014 also display the church’s seal in commemoration of the centenary, and July 27th (the day Felix Manalo founded the INC) was designated as a special non-working holiday in 2009.
Speaking out against the INC a deadly gamble
Manalo spends his weeks travelling throughout the Philippines and around the world, opening new houses of worship, accompanied by a small army of security personnel and attendants, all of whom are shuttled around the globe in the INC’s private aircraft. The INC’s worldly riches are here on display, riches which the church has accumulated from the donations of its congregations across the world. The INC’s overseas congregations are a major source of income, and rumours have circulated for years that Iglesia Ni Cristo has been involved in money laundering, siphoning cash back to the organization’s main headquarters in Quezon.
Concerns about the extravagant lifestyles of the INC’s senior leadership have caused some INC members to speak out against church policies and corruption. The INC’s response to these dissenting voices has been draconian. After an anonymous source within the church starting leaking evidence of corruption among the senior leadership, church authorities initiated a crackdown, abducting ten INC workers and ministers suspected of being the leak and interrogating them. One of the individuals abducted was Lowell Menorca II, who (along with his family) has since sought refugee status in Canada. Menorca describes being being interrogated for hours about the leak, only to be handcuffed and dumped in a car. His kidnappers abandoned the vehicle in the countryside, threw something in the back seat and took off.
"I was able to get a glimpse of it, and when [his kidnappers] ran off, I immediately knew that it's a grenade," Menorca said. "When I saw it, [I thought], 'That's it.' That's the end of me. The only thing I could do was bow my head and pray for my wife and child. That's it. But then I realized when I was able to finish my prayer up to, 'Amen,' that's pretty long for a grenade."
The grenade failed to go off, and Menorca managed to escape and continues to be an outspoken critic: he has been sued by the INC a total of forty-five times for libel as a result. Described as “cult-like” by Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, the INC benefits from close ties to Philippine security forces, leaving critics with nowhere to turn. Writing on the issue, the Board noted that “there are various scenarios where [the claimant] could be assassinated, from staged police encounters, to death in custody, to contract murder in a country where hitmen are plentiful and cheap.”
Whereas Menorca managed to escape to Canada, others have not been so fortunate, with a spate of killings occurring in recent years. While no connection between the INC and the murder has been officially drawn, the victims were all critical of the church. “They are willing to kill for [the leader of the church], and they can take that kind of mentality, that kind of approach, the aggressive approach outside the Philippines” states Rolando Rizon, a former INC minister in the United States.
This purge of voices critical to the direction taken by the INC under Manalo was mirrored by a rift in the INC’s First Family, as Manalo clashed with his siblings and mother in 2015. That year a video surfaced on Youtube of Manalo’s mother and younger brother Angel calling on INC members to protect them, claiming that their lives were in danger: both were later excommunicated from the church by Manalo. Angel and nephew Victor Eraño Hemedez were later arrested in 2017 following the discovery of a weapons cache on church property tied to the two men.
The circumstances surrounding this find are suspicious at best, as it would have been next to impossible for the police to gain access to INC property without the tacit consent of the INC’s leadership. The Church also lodged libel cases against journalists investigating the incident, who questioned why a church had a private armoury in the first place.
Are Eduardo Manalo and the INC the kingmakers of Filipino politics?
Iglesia Ni Cristo’s unsavoury connections to criminal elements and extra-judicial killings demonstrates that the church operates above the law in the Philippines. For instance, government inquiries into church affairs in 2015 resulted in the INC mobilizing thousands of followers to occupy a busy highway in Manilla in protest, severely hampering business as usual in the capital. One refugee claimant in Canada maintains that the INC “cannot be touched by the Philippine government, judiciary or law enforcement or even by the president himself.”
To a certain degree, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is beholden to the INC, as the church endorsed him during the 2016 presidential election. By itself such an endorsement would not mean much, but given the fact that INC members engage in bloc-voting, securing the votes of millions of INC followers can clinch victory in a close fought election.
Consequently, it should come as no surprise that each of the five candidates running for president in 2016 individually visited Manalo to secure his endorsement. In 2016, Manalo also received a host of other prominent visitors, including the ambassadors of Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Russia all of whom had come to congratulate Manalo on the seventh anniversary of his rise to executive minister. Manalo also received Martin Slabber, the South African ambassador, who explicitly came to meet the man behind the church, having heard of the INC’s rapid expansion in South Africa.
Manalo’s clout in Filipino political circles was confirmed in early 2018 when he was appointed Special Envoy for Overseas Filipino Concerns by Duterte in a move seen as payback for the former’s support during the 2016 election. Such an appointment is unprecedented as former INC leaders have made conscious efforts to keep the church out of political matters. “Although there are times when government officials of an agency like the Dept. of Health seek the help and cooperation of the INC in some government projects only now has the INC Executive Minister been designated (which he immediately accepted) by the President as an official of the government,” explains Isaias Samson Jr. an exiled former INC-minister and former editor-in-chief of the INC’s flagship Pasugo magazine.
In response to critics, Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III denied any wrongdoing, arguing that the INC’s international reach and large number of congregations is a huge boon for the government in its efforts to assist and protect overseas Filipino workers. Despite such statements, Samson and other critics of Manalo maintain that the move reeks of cronyism. By way of comparison, Samson muses on what the reaction of Catholics would be if the Prime Minister of Italy appointed the Pope as his official representative - “And do you think the Pope would accept?!” guffaws Samson.
“There is a long list of more qualified people in the whole archipelago who have the experience and the qualifications to handle the job, and stating that they chose Mr. Eduardo Manalo because of his ‘wide network’ abroad, without the appropriate merit for experience and qualification is a poor justification and will eventually open a can of worms. Can you imagine [that] a church leader who’s suspected of associating with smugglers, embezzlers, and extortionists is now entrusted with official political powers and diplomatic immunity?” laments Menorca, who also wonders whether Manalo will work to help overseas Filipinos critical (or former members) of Igelsia Ni Cristo.
Iglesia Ni Cristo desire to control everything threatens African societies
The more influence the INC gains in the political realm, the more it is increasingly becoming a parallel source of power within the Philippines. Already exempt from any extensive oversight and with close ties to security services, the INC is free to acquire interests in a range of areas. Take the case of the media: not content with the fact that 63 radio stations and almost three hundred TV channels broadcast INC programming, the church has sought to create its own media infrastructure. In August 2018, the Philippine legislature voted unanimously to extend the INC’s ability to own, operate and construct all relevant media infrastructure and systems by another twenty-five years.
With control over both content and distribution, the INC has more power than ever to control its media narrative. This information control is coupled with the church’s extensive real estate holdings and affiliated organizations which provide services to its followers. Controlling the media its adherents consume, and the services which they use, the INC is seeking total control over its followers. The culimination of such efforts can be seen in the INC’s self-contained communes.
One of the INC’s newest communes is in Free State, South Africa, where the church has purchased 5,000 hectares for the creation of an eco-farm. Touted as a means to aid the local poor by creating jobs and boosting food production, the commune near Ladybrand primarily provides food, employment, education and even housing for INC members.
The INC is also spending millions of Rand to build a church on a 508 hectare plot in Ladybrand surrounded by an electric fence. The church also has properties in nearby Ficksburg and Thaba Nchu, as well as across the border in Maseru, Lesotho: it is estimated that Iglesia Ni Cristo’s global eco-farm holdings amount to some 66,206 hectares.
The INC’s drive to control all facets of its adherents’ lives sees it forbid absence from services without good reason, the drinking of alcohol and romantic relationships (including marriages) with non-members. Iglesia Ni Cristo also adheres to conservative notions regarding dress and relations between the sexes. One local Ladybrand resident experienced this first hand after attending an INC service. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the woman in question recounts that “I was filled with outrage when the women were separated. We did not have access to the rest of the congregation, and there was a high empty chair next to every female congregation member. We could only see [the pastor] preach on an electronic screen.”
The creation of various religious communes in the Philippines and around world centralize all the daily needs of followers in one spot, thus minimizing the need for the INC faithful to interact with the wider world. Writing under the pseudonym Malaya dela Cruz in the the Rappler, one young INC member accuses the church of caring more about itself than in helping people in general.
“We’re prohibited to participate in any form of social mobilization or unions because it’s against the unity of the church, even if such actions address concerns that directly affect the welfare of members [...] If the church could use its clout to truly help the nation by addressing long term needs and root causes of perennial social issues – such as lobbying and supporting genuine agrarian reform, a fair wage and other issues that affect the marginalized majority, where many of its own members come from, we shall contribute to societal change.”
This insular attitude poses a serious threat to civil societies across Africa, many of whom are already undermined by their respective governments. The growth of a church that preaches withdrawal and passivity will only undermine local efforts to foster civic engagement and hold the powers that be to account.
The Bottom Line
What began as the idea of one Filipino man over a century ago has since mushroomed into a global megachurch, spanning over a hundred countries and boasting millions of devout supporters. The INC’s departure from traditional Christianity and the exaltation of its founder, Felix Manalo, has done little to slow its growth in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. Iglesia Ni Cristo has become a political and religious force to be reckoned with, in some instances acting as a king-maker in Filipino politics due to the bloc-voting of its adherents.
This growing political clout has been especially noticeable since Eduardo Manalo, grandson of the INC’s founder - became the sect’s Executive Minister back in 2009. Manalo’s tenure has seen a spate of scandals, as claims about church corruption and criminality have circulated, only to provoke an iron-fisted response from the INC. Neither ordinary followers nor members of the Manalo family have been spared by successive purges, interrogation, and even murder.
Already established in the West, the INC is now directing its focus on Africa, representing the latest wave of foreign missionaries to interact with the continent. As more INC congregations are founded across the region, there is increasing evidence that the church has imported its secretive and domineering attitudes to Africa as well. The growth of isolationist agricultural communes in South Africa and beyond represent a real threat, not only to social cohesion, but also to the efforts of local populations to organize for change. Behind the veneer of charity fun runs and potlucks, the INC harbours a sinister side that has sent a number of critics into exile - or the grave.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.