Manila, Philippines -- Allegations of abductions and misuse of funds in a politically influential but secretive religious sect in the Philippines prompted the Justice Department Friday to open an investigation that could unmask the strong grip the church has had on its members.
The government cannot intervene in the squabble within the Iglesia ni Cristo, or Church of Christ, but abductions are crimes the National Bureau of Investigation will investigate, said Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
The feud within the close-knit sect became public this week when the mother and a brother of the group's head, Eduardo Manalo, were expelled after they sought help from other members in a YouTube message, saying they were in danger and several ministers had gone missing.
R&B singer Chris Brown was prevented from leaving the Philippines this week while he was being investigated on a fraud complaint filed by the church for a canceled concert last New Year's Eve at the Philippine Arena — one of the mega-projects built by Iglesia.
Isaias Samson, a minister and former editor-in-chief of the Iglesia newspaper, told reporters that he, his wife and son were held under "house arrest" by armed guards allegedly on orders of the church for a week before they escaped early Thursday.
"It is very difficult to talk about things that we know will damage the Iglesia because of the actions of some people," he said, adding that about 10 ministers have been abducted.
Herminio Coloma, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino III, said officers from the national police Anti-Kidnapping Group have been deployed to "assess the situation to ensure the safety of all concerned and that peace and order is maintained."
Political candidates in the Philippines seek the sect's support because its members vote as a bloc. There are about 2.3 million members of the 101-year-old sect, but the number of Iglesia voters is unknown. It has followers in dozens of other countries.
The church believes that Jesus is the son of God, but it does not believe in the Holy Trinity as do the Roman Catholics — the predominant religion in the Southeast Asian nation. The Iglesia founder, Felix Manalo, broke away from the Catholic Church and is regarded by his followers as a prophet.
He died in 1963, and was succeeded by his son, Erano Manalo, until his death in 2009, when another Manalo son took over as "executive minister."
Bienvenido Santiago, Iglesia's General Evangelist, said Thursday that Cristina Manalo, the mother, and Felix Nathaniel "Angel" Manalo, a brother of the Iglesia leader, had been expelled for "creating divisions." Another brother and one of three sisters also were expelled.
Santiago denied allegations of abductions and said that the church is "not a family corporation."
"This is a religion that follows God's teachings written in the Bible," Santiago said. He said the mother and the brother were seeking positions in the church hierarchy.
De Lima said she ordered an investigation "to verify what is really happening, and depending on the results of the initial probe we will determine what should be the next step."
Speaking to reporters late Thursday at the gate of a compound where his family lives, Manalo's brother said there had been "many anomalies" in the church under its advisory Council.
"We have been threatened by the Council ... because they say we are opposing the leader," he said. "We love our brother, but the problem is those around him."
He said the church's funds "are being used up in all sorts of projects which we don't even need, one of which is the Philippine Arena."
He was referring the 55,000-seat arena, which is purported to be the world's biggest indoor stadium where the 100th anniversary of the sect was celebrated last year.
Iglesia spokesman Edwil Zabala belied the claim that church funds have been depleted, saying that 873 houses of worship have been built in the Philippines and abroad since 2011, when work on the Philippine Arena began.