Aquino, 50k INC members in 'largest theater on Earth'

'LARGEST THEATER.' The 55,000-seater Philippine Arena is set to be inaugurated days before the centennial of the Iglesia ni Cristo. Photo by George Moya/Rappler

'LARGEST THEATER.' The 55,000-seater Philippine Arena is set to be inaugurated days before the centennial of the Iglesia ni Cristo.

Photo by George Moya/Rappler

BULACAN, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – President Benigno Aquino III joined 50,000 members of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) on Monday, July 21, in opening an P8.7-billion ($200-million) structure seen to display the group's clout in the country over the past century.

Billed by the Christian group as the world's largest domed arena, the 55,000-seater Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan was inaugurated Monday to kick off the INC's centennial celebration on Sunday, July 27. (Watch Rappler's video blog below)

Referring to the Philippine Arena, Aquino said in his speech, “Sinasalamin nito ang mga nakamit na tagumpay ng Iglesia sa nagdaang siglo.” (This mirrors the victories of the Church over the past century.)

Using the event to slam his critics, Aquino also said: "Paalala ko lang sa kanila: Kung kapwa ko kayo Kristiyano, tungkulin nating magmahalan sa ngalan ng Panginoon, sa halip na maghasik ng agam-agam at 'di pagkakaunawaan." (READ: Aquino slams 'critical Christians' in INC event)

(There are some who, no matter what I do, like attending this event, will always look for things to criticize. I just want to remind them: If you are my fellow Christians, it is our duty to love each other in the name of the Lord, instead of sowing confusion and misunderstanding.)

Aquino, whom the INC anointed and elected as a bloc in 2010, and INC Executive Minister Eduardo V Manalo unveiled the Philippine Arena's marker at around 8 am on Monday.

FOR INC's CENTENNIAL. President Benigno Aquino III (left) and Iglesia ni Cristo Executive Minister Eduardo V Manalo (right) unveil the marker of the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

FOR INC's CENTENNIAL. President Benigno Aquino III (left) and Iglesia ni Cristo Executive Minister Eduardo V Manalo (right) unveil the marker of the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan.

Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

Witnessing the event was an entourage of VIPs, including Vice President Jejomar Binay, other government officials, and foreign dignitaries.

“This is the largest theater on the planet,” INC general auditor Glicerio Santos Jr said in a report by the INC-run Eagle News Service. (READ: FAST FACTS: Iglesia ni Cristo's Philippine Arena)

After all, the dome arena reportedly next to it in size – Staples Center in Los Angeles, United States – is said to hold only 21,000 people.

The Philippine Arena is also twice as large as the 20,000-seater SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City, and thrice as large as the 16,500-seater Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City.

'FOR ALL.' The Iglesia ni Cristo says it can offer the Philippine Arena for use by groups aside from their church. Photo by George Moya/Rappler

'FOR ALL.' The Iglesia ni Cristo says it can offer the Philippine Arena for use by groups aside from their church.

Photo by George Moya/Rappler

Tourist attraction, too

During Monday's event, Manalo and Aquino inaugurated not only the Philippine Arena, but the whole Ciudad de Victoria (City of Victory) in Bocaue.

Seen as a “one-stop multi-purpose complex and even a tourism enterprise zone,” the 75-hectare Ciudad de Victoria also includes the Philippine Sports Stadium, the INC said in a statement.

Santos said the INC built the Philippine Arena “not only for the members of the Iglesia ni Cristo, but for all the people.”

55,000-SEATER. The world's largest dome arena,  Philippine Arena is thrice as large as the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

55,000-SEATER. The world's largest dome arena, Philippine Arena is thrice as large as the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City.

Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

Kaya nga natin tinawag na Philippine Arena. Kung pag-aari man ng Iglesia ito, ang makikinabang, ang Pilipino,” Santos said in the Eagle News report. (That is why it is called Philippine Arena. Even if this is owned by the Iglesia ni Cristo, Filipinos will benefit from it.)

In 2011, for the groundbreaking of the arena, Manalo said the structure was built for the “glory of God, for the honor of the country, and the benefit of the Filipino people.”

With a design “inspired by the narra and banyan trees,” the Philippine Arena “has a dome spanning over 3.6 hectares” that was “built to withstand strong earthquakes and super typhoons.”

GUEST OF HONOR. President Benigno Aquino III delivers a speech during the inauguration of the Iglesia ni Cristo's Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

GUEST OF HONOR. President Benigno Aquino III delivers a speech during the inauguration of the Iglesia ni Cristo's Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan.

Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

Politically influential group

The INC built the Philippine Arena, along with the whole Ciudad de Victoria, in time for the 100th year since the church was registered with the Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission on July 27, 1914.

Since 1914, the INC has grown to a size of around 2.25 million members as of 2010 – close to Quezon City's population of 2.7 million.

It was founded by Felix Manalo, a former Catholic who grew dissatisfied with the Catholic Church's teachings and eventually began a new church in Sta Ana, Manila.

The INC, whose English name is “Church of Christ,” is known for its political influence. Its members vote as a bloc, and elect only those whom their leaders endorse. (INFOGRAPHIC: What you should know about the Iglesia ni Cristo)

PAYING HOMAGE. President Benigno Aquino III and Vice President Jejomar Binay lead an entourage of VIPs at the inauguration of the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan. Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

PAYING HOMAGE. President Benigno Aquino III and Vice President Jejomar Binay lead an entourage of VIPs at the inauguration of the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan.

Photo by Mark Cristino/Rappler

Among Philippine presidents after Corazon Aquino, who rose to power after the revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos, only one chief executive was not endorsed by the INC.

Former president Fidel V Ramos did not get the INC's nod. The INC endorsed Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco in the 1992 presidential elections, which Ramos won.

Former presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and the incumbent leader, Mr Aquino, all got the INC's endorsement. 

The INC's bloc voting system has boosted its political capital – seen as Aquino, Binay, and other VIPs flock to the "largest theater" on Earth. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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