This is how the Iglesia ni Cristo respond to Christ's universal call to mission.
At the most basic level, the INC provides for the welfare needs of its flock, such as jobs and housing for its poorest members. The INC is run like a tightly knit family, where members look out for one other. It also offers the rewards of the other life, promising that as sure as the soaring turrets of the Iglesia's Gothic-style churches pierce the sky, salvation will be granted believers.
At the same time, the 88-year old INC is a shrewd political and business operator. It parlays the votes of its members for political and financial concessions to the church.
Iglesia doctrine is based on the Bible and the "prophetic interpretations" of church founder Felix Y. Manalo, who left both the Catholic and the Protestant churches before founding [his own] the INC in 1914.
Manalo's son Eraño is now the powerful executive minister of the church, while grandson Eduardo is deputy executive minister. They and 11 other senior ministers compose the "Central Administration," which issue edicts that church members are compelled to follow.
Pasugo, the church's official publication, asserts the church's fundamental
article of faith: that INC members constitute "the elect of God" and that God
listens to them alone. To them, there is no salvation outside the Iglesia.
As Fernando Elesterio wrote in a dissertation submitted to De la Salle University: "It is this exclusivist attitude, generated naturally by the teachings of the ministers, that bestows on the members a sense of security and even of pride in their organization."
INC claims to have 2 million members of voting age, although pollster Felipe Miranda believes that the actual figure is closer to 1 to 1.5 million. At the national level, this bloc is a strategic swing vote, especially in multiparty electoral contests for the Senate. It is a swing vote for the presidential race as well, but only if there are multiple candidates. At the local level, especially in Luzon, the Iglesia command vote could determine the fate of a candidate.
The INC exercises its clout outside the realm of politics as well. In 1998, a big commercial bank sued the church in a dispute over property that had been offered for sale to both the bank and the INC.
The bank had acquired the land earlier, but a relative of INC Executive Minister Erano "Erdie" Manalo brokered its sale to the church, unaware of the earlier transaction.
"The church felt insulted it was being sued in court," an influential INC member said. "You don't go to court or go public at once. Usually, you call up the Iglesia first."
Stung by the lawsuit, church leaders ordered all their members employed by the bank to resign and called on all the faithful to pull their money out of the bank. The bank lost P1 billion. In time, the case was settled amicably, with the bank properly advised never to cross the INC in public or in court again.
Over the years, the INC's business interests have grown. A search at the Securities and Exchange Commission showed that INC leaders are incorporators and board directors in companies engaged in education (New Era University Inc.; Global Foundation for the New Era); medical care (New Era General Hospital; Felix Manalo Puericulture and Maternity Clinic), mass media (Scan Society of Communicators; Association of Christians in IT); manufacturing (Hi Mill Corporation); construction (Ramdustrial Corp.); and legal service (Christian Lawyers Association Foundation).
Former Justice Secretary Serafin Cuevas, one of Estrada's defense lawyer and a senior INC member, is a trustee of the New Era University and officer of Amalgamated Management and Development Corp., which has secured the contracts for production of driver's licenses, identification cards, and motor vehicle plates from the Marcos to the Estrada regimes.
The INC is trying to wangle tax-exemption deals as well. In 2000, the Montalban municipal assessor declared the 29 hectares of church lands used for housing to be taxable, and three hectares for the chapel, exempted from taxes. The assessor estimated that the INC would have to pay some P5 million in taxes.
The church, however, refused, arguing that the INC project was not meant for profit and should therefore be tax-exempt. The INC leaders also wrote personal letters to Rizal Gov. Rebecca Ynares, who endorsed the matter to Montalban Mayor Pedro Cuerpo.
Former Rizal Provincial Assessor Oscar Baraquero denied the request, saying "the housing project which you claimed for charitable and philanthropic effort does not squarely fall under the provisions of the law, as these are intended solely for the members of INC…the term charitable is an act of humanity without distinction or limitations as to religious belief, creed or social affiliation."
The tax debate has been raised to the Department of Finance for decision.
Meanwhile, Montalban officials are in a quandary. The INC has dangled before them the fact that they have many voters in the municipality. "'Yung pwersa ng boto nila ang panlaban nila," said one local official. "Maraming takot diyan sa Iglesia. (They use their votes as bait and many are afraid of them.)"
INC members have also barred DENR inspectors from entering the other phases of the Montalban project. One inspector said he feared asserting himself because INC members are armed.