Inside the Iglesia family

With millions of members, the Iglesia ni Cristo might be the largest religious sect you’ve never heard of—and critics claim it governs by intimidation and violence

World Magazine/February 14, 2019

By Emily Belz

New York -- It’s a group with millions of members and at least 7,000 congregations in more than 100 countries, and it claims to be the only true church. Most Americans don’t know about the Iglesia ni Cristo, or “Church of Christ,” with its gleaming, spire-topped buildings that have popped up everywhere from South Korea to South Africa.

In the last decade this religious sect has expanded rapidly, and it now has about 340 congregations in the United States. It has recently bought entire ghost towns in Connecticut and South Dakota. The Connecticut town will serve, among other things, as an educational center to train ministers.

In New York City last fall, the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) hosted oratorios at the famed Lincoln Center, and its members have banded together to do disaster recovery in the Philippines, to give to local food banks, and to break Guinness world records. Much of its work looks similar to that of any Christian church, with worship services, meals, voluntary tithing, and community service. It is built on intense communal relationships and has schools, a university, sports activities, and piano competitions.

But the group’s beliefs are non-Trinitarian, and critics also link it with patterns of intimidation and violence toward former or dissenting members—patterns the INC, headquartered in the Philippines, has avoided acknowledging. At least three expelled members of the group have been granted asylum in Canada in the last two years because of reported threats to their lives. 

Some others who have been expelled say they have been threatened and stalked for criticizing the sect, which prizes unity and commitment to its central leadership under Eduardo V. Manalo, the grandson of the founder.

“When the members ask questions … you are automatically deemed as a defector, that you’re against the administration,” said Liezl Deocampo, who was expelled from the INC in California in 2015 along with her family.

Deocampo said she has been stalked, with online threats and people parked outside her home, and her sisters cannot visit her for fear of expulsion themselves. She recently bought a gun and took gun training lessons.

The INC has denied every accusation of maltreatment or intimidation of former members.

“These people who are coming up with all these allegations, they were expelled from the church,” said Edwil Zabala, one of the group’s top ministers, who is based in the central office in the Philippines. “It’s just like dealing with a disgruntled ex-employee. We don’t expect them to have good or nice words about us.”

Iglesia ni Cristo began in the Philippines in 1914 with the vision of founder Félix Manalo syncretized with aspects of Christianity. Manalo, disillusioned with both Catholicism and Protestantism, started the group with his own revelations and interpretations of Scripture. He became the INC’s first executive minister.

“They are a significant unreached people group for which the evangelical community has no intentional evangelistic strategy,” wrote Anne Harper, a longtime missionary with Action International in the Philippines, in her book Understanding the Iglesia ni Cristo.

The INC does not believe in the Trinity or in Jesus’ divine nature, and it considers itself the only church that offers salvation. It considers Félix Manalo to be the “angel of the East” (referenced in Revelation 7) whom God appointed for the last times. Zabala, explaining the executive minister’s role, quoted Romans 16:25, where the gospel is a “mystery,” and the only ones who understand it are the “messengers” (Mark 4:11), including current executive minister Eduardo Manalo and the New Testament apostles.

Thanks to its centralized authority under Manalo, the INC also has political power in the Philippines that rivals the much larger Catholic Church. During every election, the group’s central administration releases a list of endorsed candidates, and millions of INC members vote as a bloc. (The political endorsements and bloc voting do not extend to other countries like the United States or Canada.)

The last four candidates to win the presidency of the Philippines had the backing of INC, including current president Rodrigo Duterte. Last year Duterte appointed Manalo as the special envoy for Overseas Filipino Concerns.

The group’s theology focuses on a works-based salvation, with a strict commitment to the executive minister’s interpretation of God’s will. On threat of expulsion, members must submit to the executive minister’s decisions, attend worship services consistently, live a holy life as defined by the INC, and never do anything causing disunity in the group. Members are discouraged from posting negative things about the INC on social media, for example.

“Factions are of the devil,” said Zabala. “So how can we remain a church if we allow factions inside the Iglesia ni Cristo?”

To be baptized and join the group, a prospective member must study 28 lessons over several months, then complete a probationary period to prove commitment to INC principles.

Eunice Raposas, an evangelical originally from the Philippines and now in college in New York, once visited the headquarters in Quezon City. She noticed the beautifully maintained gardens and the huge, immaculate building in the midst of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. The group evangelized her, but she did not join. 

In the Catholic Church, she said, “it’s just like you go to church, do your prayers, do what you got to do, and then leave,” she said. “But when you go into Iglesia ni Cristo, it’s different. … People feel like they are a part of a really big family.” But she found the commitment level unnerving: “Their mission is to try to make people be perfect. … If you want to be a part of their church you have to be dedicated.”

Most of the Iglesia ni Cristo’s members belong to the world’s Filipino diaspora, though services are open to anyone. A congregation in Queens, one of seven in the New York City area, has services in Tagalog, English, and Spanish.

At the packed Sunday service I visited, the Queens congregation sang an INC hymn about remaining in the book of life: “Please do not blot out my name, Lord, I beg you.” Ministers prayed for unity with the central administration.

The service exhibited the values of orderliness: Choir members, when they finished a hymn, closed their binders in unison. At collection time the ushers—men in suits, women in white—lined up in perfect choreography, canvassing each aisle with white bags. Men and women sat separately, but after the service everyone spilled into the basement to eat and talk together.

The sermon, delivered by district minister Joji Crisostomo, came from the central office in the Philippines. The administration sends an outline for the sermon every Sunday to all INC congregations around the world, so everyone hears the same message. The topic on this day focused on the expulsion of members, which is controlled by the central office.

INC ministers often quote Scripture from memory, but in this sermon it was mostly warning passages—like Titus 3:10: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.”

“Those who cause division—remember them, report them … and avoid them,” preached Crisostomo, delivering the brimstone with the charm of an NPR radio host. He went on to underline the consequences of expulsion: “If we leave the church, salvation will not follow us outside.”

IN 2015, trouble began boiling in the Iglesia ni Cristo that led to several high-profile expulsions. That year someone began anonymously posting critical details about INC administration on a blog using the pen name “Antonio Ebangelista.” Then the executive minister’s brother Angel Manalo and his mother appeared in a video, saying Angel’s life had been threatened and that ministers had been held captive for attempting to expose corruption among the INC’s leadership. Executive minister Eduardo Manalo expelled his mother and three of his siblings from the group for causing disunity.

“They only want to gain sympathizers in order to achieve their ambition to have a hand in the administration of the church,” INC leaders said in a statement about the video at the time.

Caught in this controversy was Lowell Menorca, an unordained minister whose father was in the top levels of the INC administration before his death in 2011. Menorca came under scrutiny as a critic of Eduardo Manalo’s administration and as one of the people purportedly behind the damaging Antonio blog.

Menorca claims that armed men, including an INC minister, kidnapped him, interrogated him, and then tried to kill him by shutting him in a car with a grenade that did not go off. He escaped and later fled to Southeast Asia, and then to Canada. (Menorca said his wife and daughter are in hiding and are awaiting an exit visa to join him in Canada.)

The INC has denied any role in Menorca’s troubles, and members of the sect have sued Menorca for libel many times. INC members in the Philippines whom I interviewed seemed unconcerned about any of these accusations, saying they seemed “fabricated,” though they recalled the 2015 rift creating a lot of discussions within the group.

But the Canadian immigration and refugee board determined Menorca was a “credible witness,” saying his story had remained consistent over the years. The board granted him asylum in 2017, saying the INC was “motivated by a vendetta against the claimant.”

“The INC will have both the means and the motivation to seriously harm or kill the claimant if he were to return to the Philippines,” the board said.

A refugee board ruling is by no means a legal determination of the INC’s guilt in this situation, because the INC was not on trial. The board merely had to determine if Menorca’s sworn testimony appeared credible.

The refugee board also granted asylum in 2017 to another expelled member, Rovic Canono, who testified that he had experiened harassment, death threats, a libel suit, and false charges of assaulting his wife.

“While in detention … the claimant was held in extremely abusive conditions under the eye of INC-affiliated management and inmates,” the refugee board said in its ruling for Canono.

INC leaders have insisted that their accusers bring their serious allegations to court and offer proof. When I asked the district minister Crisostomo about the asylum cases, he said: “I think it’s just a matter of time, the Canadian government will really see who these people are. … I really believe in God’s justice. Leave it to God.”

There are more stories of bad things happening to INC critics. Jose Norilito de Luna Fruto, an American citizen living in the Philippines, submitted testimony to the Canadian refugee board on Menorca’s behalf. He was another expelled member and highly critical of the INC. The INC had reportedly filed multiple libel cases against him.

A few months after his testimony, Fruto’s body was found shot multiple times in his car. The Philippines murder rate is high, and there was no evidence of any INC connection to the death, but Menorca and other INC defectors drew a connection.

A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) investigative team also reported on a Canadian citizen living in the Philippines who was murdered last year after having a long-term dispute with INC members who were building a house of worship next door. Again, there was no evidence of the group’s involvement in the murder.

This isn’t a new issue. Harper, the missionary to the Philippines, recalled threats against missionaries she knew in the 1990s—including one missionary, Blair Skinner, whom she said several men beat up outside the INC’s main building in Quezon City.

Zabala, from the central office, said he is “not surprised” at the vilifying of the INC when he considers the history of the early church. He mentioned how ancient Romans thought early Christians were cannibals.

“It’s really part of the history of Christianity to be misunderstood. ... Just imagine if we were really doing what you are accusing us of doing,” he said. “Do you think that … the majority of the members would not react?”

Sporadic instances of seemingly threatening behavior continue, though INC ministers say they teach members to be peaceful. In late 2018, a camera crew from the CBC, investigating Menorca’s claims, showed up at an event in California where Eduardo Manalo was speaking. They tried to interview Manalo, but his security team repelled them. When crew members returned to their car, they found their tires slashed.

I had only positive interactions with the INC. Zabala offered hours of his time to talk from the Philippines, and Crisostomo (who oversees 24 congregations in the U.S. Northeast) was always cordial and drove long distances to meet me twice in New York. The local minister at the Queens congregation laid out a gorgeous spread of fruits, cookies, and Filipino candy for our meeting, and invited me to any events that I wished to attend.

Still, during the Sunday service I visited, congregation officials asked me to turn my phone off before allowing me into the chapel, and made me promise not to interview any members, to record, or to take pictures. Then, with my permission, they took photos of me to send to the central office.

—with reporting by World Journalism Institute graduate Isaiah Johnson

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