INSIDE STORY: The end of the Iglesia ni Cristo protest

MANILA, Philippines – On Sunday evening, August 30, at about dinner time, President Benigno Aquino III quietly convened some members of his Cabinet at Bahay Pangarap, his official residence.

It was the 4th night of a vigil-protest staged by the influential but recently fragmented Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). The night before, an estimated 5,000 followers gathered at the EDSA-Shaw intersection, roused and fired up by ministers and emcees who ridiculed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and expelled INC minister Isaias Samson Jr.

"Hustisya!" they repeatedly cried, egged on by anti-administration Catholics and relatives of no less than the President – Jose "Peping" Cojuangco and his wife Margarita or "Tingting" – accompanied by another Aquino critic Pastor "Boy" Saycon. They called for justice in the name of the 44 Special Action Force (SAF) cops who were mercilessly slain in the bloody Mamasapano incident in Maguindanao. 

On Sunday night, steady pouring rain failed to douse the spirit of Iglesia brethren whose number had swelled to 20,000 at their peak. The permit given to them by the Mandaluyong City government was extended until Monday morning, August 31, by which time they should clear EDSA – among the busiest thoroughfares in the National Capital Region (NCR).

There was talk of some opposition leaders making an appearance on EDSA. One of them reportedly declined, while another decided against it.

In Bahay Pangarap, the President was joined by the big guns from the country’s security sector to discuss “developments” in the INC protests. 

 Palace sources said the INC, at first, tried to bargain and wanted to meet with Aquino himself. This request was denied, according to a source privy to discussions.

INC leaders also wanted two things from government: De Lima's head and the dropping of the serious illegal detention case filed by Samson against the local church’s current leaders. It was this case and the alleged overreach by the DOJ into the INC's supposed internal affairs that triggered the protests.

Dispersal

That Sunday, they threatened to bring in even more warm bodies, spilling over to the EDSA Shrine, icon of the People Power revolution that overthrew a dictator in 1986. Other contingents from the provinces continued to pour in even as separate mobilization of Iglesia followers had been planned in key cities in the Visayas and in Mindanao for Monday, August 31.

Palace sources, however, said the government did not – and was not planning – to give in to either of the INC's demands. But the INC, whose influence spills over to local and national politics, refused to blink as well. (READ: How potent is the INC’s vote delivery system?)

The energy and excitement had not waned on EDSA – red, white, and green flags were still being waved, young and old continued singing songs as darkness fell over the metro. As the hours passed, the deadline to clear EDSA was fast approaching.

The lines of communication remained open, primarily through telephone. A source privy to talks between the INC and the Palace said the Iglesia's point person was its political affairs chief, Eraño "Erdz" Codera, said to be a provincemate of the President. Codera was not present during the late-night emergency meeting at Bahay Pangarap. Another source said they went through "middle men" without specifying who exactly.

The President was presented with several options that night, which included dispersal if the INC overstayed and violated the conditions of their extended permit.

The orders, though, never reached police forces on the ground, Rappler found out. By Sunday evening, the INC already made a commitment that its members would disperse come Monday morning, even if they still had a permit to hold their protest in the city of Manila.

Factors

So why did the local church, known to have considerable influence in local elections and in tight national contests, agree to disperse?

Time and circumstance weren’t exactly on the INC’s side, explained a Palace source.

The group had hoped to bring together at least half a million people to the streets, according to intelligence reports. On Saturday, emcees on the stage called on the police sympathetic to the SAF 44 to join the protest but efforts were for naught.

Even within the INC, there were those who quietly or were anonymously opposed to the orders of their leaders. The 20,000 they managed to muster was a far cry from the initial 500,000 target, said one Palace source.

“Division within, numbers, [lack of support] from the military and police, and weather,” is how one government official privy to the movements of the INC explained it.

The INC also managed to “dilute” its own message, said another, when it allowed the anti-Aquino personalities on stage during its Saturday night protest.

Saving face

On Monday morning, INC’s general evangelist Bienvenido Santiago announced in a video: “Nais po naming ipabatid sa inyong lahat na nagkausap na po ang panig ng Iglesia at panig ng pamahalaan at sa pag-uusap na ito ay nagkapaliwanagan na po ang dalawang panig. Kaya payapa na po ang lahat.” (We'd like to inform you all that both the Iglesia and the government have spoken to each other and clarified matters. So all is well.)

Government officials were cautious in their statements.

Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said: “Noong mga nakaraang araw ay tahimik na nakipag-ugnayan ang pamahalaan sa mga lider ng INC. Naging pagkakataon ito upang magkaroon ng paglilinaw ukol sa mga isyu.” (The past few days, government officials and the INC’s leaders have been quietly meeting. These meetings provided a chance for both sides to clarify issues.)

Palace spokesperson Secretary Edwin Lacierda cited “diplomacy” as an “important tool in avoiding unintended consequences” during the protest.

The Iglesia-owned Eagle News, however, declared, "Iglesia Ni Cristo General Evangelist Brother Bienvenido Santiago announced the end of the 5-day peaceful assembly, saying that the Iglesia Ni Cristo and the government have come into peaceful agreement."

The word “agreement” immediately triggered alarm bells for politicians and ordinary citizens, who were all too aware of the INC’s influence in politics. Did it signal a deal or an arrangement involving the Iglesia leaders?

Sources privy to discussions in the Palace insisted no concessions or compromises were made. “There was no agreement, it’s that simple,” said one source.

But it took nearly 7 hours before the Palace released a more categorical statement on whether compromises had been made.

“There was no deal struck, as some insist,” Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a text message to reporters.

Back to normal?

By noon on Monday, Shaw Boulevard corner EDSA showed signs of normalcy: jeeps and buses full of INC members from all over Luzon were leaving, as city workers and fire marshals began cleaning up the mess they left behind.

Come Tuesday, September 1, De Lima will return to work at the justice department – as if nothing ever happened. 

The influential local church, a Palace source said, walked away empty-handed. De Lima stays and the cases filed against the INC’s leaders will go through the usual process and will need to undergo preliminary investigation. 

But all is not lost for the INC.

De Lima, who had announced her plans of seeking a Senate post in 2016, is set to resign from the Cabinet when she files her certificate of candidacy in October anyway. It will be a matter of time.

“They say it’s an agreement so they save face. We’ll let them have their graceful exit,” said the Palace official.  Rappler.com