SHOW OF FORCE’ Thousands of residents, mostly affiliated with the Christian sect the Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church of Christ), gather at an intersection to receive relief supplies from one of the Philippines’ largest Christian sects, in Manila on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. AP

MANILA, OCTOBER 15, 2013 (PHILSTAR) Agence France-Presse - More than 1.5 million people converged here Monday for a powerful Christian sect’s evangelical event, causing traffic chaos that shut down large parts of the megacity.

The gathering of the secretive and politically influential Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) in the historic district of Manila forced all schools and some government offices to close.

The Supreme Court, as well as some basketball games in the highly popular college league, were also suspended, while Manila’s governing authority urged private employers to give their staff a paid day off to avoid the traffic.

“We really apologize for those who were inconvenienced. Maybe they can just pass this off as a minor sacrifice to help their countrymen,” Iglesia ni Cristo spokesman Edwin Zaballa told AFP.

Iglesia ni Cristo, which is believed to have about three million members, held the event ostensibly as a medical and charity mission, with its followers giving aid to residents of huge slums.

Zaballa said it was also part of year-long celebrations across the country to mark the lead-up to its centenary in 2014, and “to spread the word.”

Between two and three million people attended the event, according to Manila’s police chief, Isagani Genade, while the organizers estimated the crowd at between 1.5 million and two million people.

The event is one of many ostentatious displays of faith in the mainly Catholic Philippines, where religious leaders also wield heavy political influence.

However, not everyone attending was celebrating.

In a square fronting Manila’s central post office, tempers frayed during the fierce afternoon heat as men, women and children jostled while waiting for medical care offered by the group.

“This is madness. I have been here since dawn to get a free medical check-up, but I will get more sick in this heat,” said factory worker Flor Kato, a 40-year-old mother of five who was complaining of chest pains.

Several others fainted due to the heat, while others simply gave up in frustration.

Founded by Felix Manalo in 1914, Iglesia ni Cristo exerts huge political influence in the Philippines.

INC medical mission paralyzes metropolis By Erika Sauler, Nathaniel R. Melican, Niña P. Calleja Philippine Daily Inquirer 2:00 am | Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

RELIEF WORK Thousands of people gather under the LRT line, Nagtahan Bridge and the Legarda overpass to receive relief supplies during the Iglesia ni Cristo’s evangelical mission in Manila. AP

The government came under fire on Monday for allowing the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) to hold a medical mission in Metro Manila that snarled traffic across the metropolis, shuttered schools and forced the suspension of work in the courts in the afternoon.

Angry commuters and motorists who arrived late for work saw politics in the INC outreach program and chided Malacañang for buckling to the bloc-voting sect’s “show of force.”

But most excoriated was the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) for making the metropolis “adjust” to the INC instead of asking the Christian sect to adjust its activity to the limitations of the city.

Malacañang brushed aside the public anger, denying that the partial shutdown of government services was politically motivated.

“We see this as a medical mission,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said, responding to reporters’ questions about the INC activity as a protest against President Aquino’s handling of allegations of corruption in his administration.

“We have no reason to believe otherwise,” Valte said.

Valte also evaded questions about the Palace not being suspicious about the timing of the INC medical mission.
She said she did not know whether the government asked the INC to hold the medical mission on a weekend to minimize the inconvenience to the public.

Reacting to the talk of a show of force, the INC denied the outreach program, called “Kabayan Ko, Kapatid Ko” (My Countrymen, My Brethren), had political color.

“This is not a show of force,” INC minister Edwil Zabala told a news conference.

“No. There is no politics here,” he said.

5 sites

The INC dispensed medical and dental services at five sites in Manila: Plaza del Carmen, including the Lacson, Nagtahan and Mendiola areas; Quinta Market in Quiapo; the Manila Post Office area; and the Isetann area at C.M. Recto Avenue and Quezon Boulevard.

The MMDA rerouted traffic around those locations to give way to the Iglesia event, compounding vehicular congestion in the surrounding areas and doubling commuter time on the road.

Served by the mission were not only INC followers from Manila, but also thousands of members from nearby provinces.

The INC reportedly hired 5,000 buses to ferry its followers from the provinces to Manila. The buses started to arrive as early as Sunday night, disgorging INC followers seeking medical and dental services and relief goods that would be given away during the event.

Iglesia apology

Zabala said the INC chose Quiapo as one of the sites for the mission on the request of residents of that district.
He apologized for the inconvenience to the public.

“We held the [mission] in response to requests coming from residents [of] Quiapo who [had been invited to previous missions or] had heard about them, because this is not the first time,” Zabala said.

The INC expected 1 million to 1.5 million people to come to the mission on Monday.

To ease the expected traffic congestion, the government called off classes in elementary and secondary schools in 13 of the 17 cities and municipalities in the metropolis.

Mayor Joseph Estrada of Manila suspended classes in colleges and universities in the city as well.

But it did little to save people from getting to work on time.

Half day in courts

With most court employees stewing in traffic in different parts of the metropolis, the Supreme Court called off afternoon work in the highest court and the Court of Appeals in Manila and the Court of Tax Appeals, the Sandiganbayan in Quezon City and all trial courts in the two cities.

Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te was among those caught in the gridlock. He ranted against the INC medical mission and the MMDA from his car.

Te complained about how España Avenue and peripheral roads had been converted into parking lots for the buses and other vehicles used to ferry Iglesia members to the medical mission and about the traffic snarl on the so-called alternative routes designated by the MMDA to accommodate the Iglesia.

“Someone allowed this to happen, right? The mayor of Manila? The department of the interior? The head of the MMDA? So far no one has man’d up,” Te said in one of his tweets.

“The LGU (local government unit) power to regulate TPM (time, place and manner) of public assemblies has been upheld in the CPR (calibrated preemptive response) case. Instead LGU and DepEd (Department of Education) suspend classes?

Duh!” Te followed up.

The Inquirer tried to call MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino for comment on the Metro residents’ complaints, but he did not respond to this paper’s calls and text messages.

In radio interviews Monday morning, however, Tolentino explained that he had asked the Department of Education to call off classes to avoid inconvenience to students.

“If we did not suspend the classes, our students might not find a ride going home later in the afternoon,” Tolentino said.
Charlie Nozares of the MMDA Metrobase said the INC event brought traffic on the stretch of Edsa from Quezon Avenue to Buendia Avenue to a crawl from 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. as motorists looked for other routes to Quezon City and Manila.

At the Commission on Elections (Comelec) office in Intramuros, Manila, many employees failed to report for work because of what one female worker called “Iglesia medical mission related hassles.”

“The INC should have held the event in places like Rizal Park, CCP complex and Quezon Memorial Circle, among other places, instead of smaller venues,” said a security guard at the Comelec who asked not to be named.

“Work here is half day because only few employees reported for work,” he said.

Aura Marie Dagcutan, who lives in Marikina City and works in Manila, said she arrived more than an hour late for work at her office on United Nations Avenue because she had to walk more than a kilometer and fight for a jeepney ride early in the morning.

“This is worse than the situation during storms,” Dagcutan said.

Not just medical mission

Asked what she thought about the INC event, Dagcutan said she believed it was not just a medical mission.

“For me, it’s a show of force of the Iglesia ni Cristo. For me, this shows how much the sect has done for [Manila Mayor Joseph] Erap Estrada, that he had to allow this to happen on a Monday morning when they could have done it on another day, maybe on a weekend or a holiday,” she said.

Dagcutan also had a message for Estrada.

“He should also have canceled work throughout the city. Because it’s not only students who get affected by these events. We workers are affected too,” she said.

Estrada laughed off the “show of force” line, which was suggested by people who claimed he brought the INC event to Manila to warn his opponents who were seeking to reverse his victory in May’s mayoral election.

“It’s nothing like that,” he said. “It never occurred to me, not even in my imagination.”

Estrada called the INC event “heaven sent” for the poor of Manila.

“They gave relief goods to victims of calamities. That’s heaven-sent. Very timely, because Manila has the highest incidence of poverty in (Metro Manila),” he said.

But not only ordinary people read political meaning in the INC event.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said politicians who failed to get the message of the event were fools.

Not siege of Malacañang

The sites of the INC medical mission were all close to Malacañang, but Zabala said there was nothing to it.

“The people who went there were evenly distributed. We had no plan to lay siege on Malacañang,” Zabala said.

“If that is how our activity was seen, that’s inadvertent,” he said.

A project of the Felix Y. Manalo Foundation Inc., the outreach program was launched in Manila’s Binondo district in April, combining the INC’s two major activities: evangelization and charity work.

Zabala said the program was also part of yearlong celebrations across the country to mark the lead-up to INC’s centenary next year.

He said the INC had brought the outreach program to other places, including Zamboanga City at the height of fighting between government forces and rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction led by Nur Misuari last month.

An INC press statement said the outreach program had been taken to other countries as well.—With reports from Gil C. Cabacungan, Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Donna Cueto-Ybañez, Jerry E. Esplanada and AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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