After the 2015 controversies: What's been happening inside the Iglesia ni Cristo?

For many years, Guia* embodied what is expected of a loyal member of the Iglesia ni Cristo.

She regularly attended services, moved in a circle full of INC members, aligned her activities with the teachings, and didn’t have any bit of doubt about what the church stands for.

“I was living in a bubble because my community was mainly centered around the church, the home, and the school,” Guia told Rappler. “I didn't have other perspectives.”

But everything changed one fateful month in 2015.

The months surrounding July 2015 were a battle of propaganda and violence between the strong circle of INC executive director Eduardo V. Manalo and the camp of expelled members, including high-ranking ministers and even members of the Manalo family. (READ: Revolt in the Iglesia ni Cristo)

There were huge rallies on EDSA, small stakeouts outside the family compound along Tandang Sora Avenue, and toxic exchanges on social media which extended to groups outside of the warring sides, including politicians and the media.

It was also when the INC explicitly flexed its political influence cultivated since its establishment in 1914 by Felix Manalo. (INFOGRAPHIC: What you should know about the Iglesia ni Cristo)

But for Guia and many members of the INC, the period starting July 2015 was the beginning of what they refer to as an unravelling of the group’s flaws. The biggest controversy that struck the 105-year-old religious group was a turning point for many who were born into, or grew up in, the church. (READ: Manalo brother hits Iglesia ni Cristo 'corruption')

“What made me more awakened, I guess, was that the facts are there,” Guia said, admitting being in denial for the first few months. “The videos kept coming up, more people were speaking up, the blogs were out…it’s that bad.”

The conversations painted a picture of a leadership both aggressively fighting doubts from its own members and shielding them from external criticism.

“I would look forward to going to Church before because I would love to listen to the lessons basically that say do good, check your lifestyle, there was no judgment,” Guia said.

“But now, it has become the way that we need to defend our church against these attackers, we are being attacked and therefore we should fight back,” she added.

Rappler has repeatedly tried since Wednesday, July 24, to get the side of the INC leadership through its spokesperson Edwil Zabala, but text messages and emails have yet to be answered as of Saturday, July 27. We will update this story once we get a response.

'One with EVM'

A few months after July 2015, Guia saw herself seated among other faithfuls inside one INC locale in Quezon City, watching a recorded video of Eduardo V Manalo – or EVM – preaching from one faraway place.

It was the first of what became a fixture in many locales within and outside the Philippines, as confirmed by other INC members Rappler talked to.

Based in the United States, Luis* spent his whole life in the church as his father's side are all members of the INC while his mother converted upon marriage. He described himself as a "good follower" who held a few positions within his locale.

He told Rappler that these videos usually showed EVM preaching from different locations where he went to for church dedications, adding that many members who are against the leadership called this “‘pay-per-view’ service since you give your offering to watch a recording.”

Carlos*, whose INC locale is also in the US, said that the videos would be played every weekend and would take longer than the usual services.

“The church loves to pride itself in unity, so weekly lessons are the same worldwide,” he said.

For Guia, the videos felt like an effort by the church administration to keep EVM in the spotlight amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement. These charges against his leadership came from expelled members and his own family.

“I also felt uncomfortable with it [after a while] because I was in church and I would feel, bakit ako nanonood? (Why am I watching this?)” she said. “It wasn't spiritual for me, it's as if I was mechanically watching television.”

Aside from the frequent videos, many of the church activities were fashioned after the name of EVM, including one dubbed as "Make EVM Smile" project.

Jose*, an active INC member from 1988 to 2017 in Texas, said that he has seen how teachings shifted from being based on the Bible to everything for EVM.

EVM AWARDS. The Iglesia ni Cristo holds its Excellence in Visual Media (EVM) awards in October 2015.

Rappler file photo

The hymns he used to sing as a choir member growing up were pulled out and replaced with songs that give glory to the leadership. “I hear it’s only gotten worse now. People sing songs about him when he visits,” Jose added.

A quick search on YouTube will show several videos of songs about EVM. One of these songs, I Am One With EVMwas uploaded in August 2016 and featured international locales.

Obey the administration

Since July 2015, the circle of expelled and current members has grown bigger and with it, sentiments and allegations against the INC leadership. Anti-INC bloggers writing under pseudonyms became more active while international media reported on the controversies surrounding the INC.

These developments, as expected, did not sit well with the leadership. But for many inside the INC, particularly millennials, the external criticism opened their eyes to what was happening – something that the INC administration tried to discourage and stop.

How did they do it? According to INC members Rappler whom talked to, denial was their first resort followed by censorship of any external media that showed a contrary view.

“The church leadership censors the brethren as we are told not to listen, read, or watch anything that puts the church in a bad light,” Carlos said. “We are told not to believe the negative things that are being said about the church, and are told to only trust news that are on the church website/radio/TV channel.”

Luis, meanwhile, said that lessons became very repetitive and “became more focused on the administration and [the need] to obey them.” The church, he said, became more controlling of its members.

Dennis*, a member for 40 years, saw that the leadership implemented the mantra “obey and never complain” which forced many of its members to turn a blind eye to everything else or face possible expulsion.

“That mantra in itself reveals just how much the INC despises critical thought and analysis or accountability,” he told Rappler. “In other words, you are not allowed to ask questions just follow what you are told.”

Staying or leaving

This has led to a more problematic outcome, the members said, as sisters and brothers were allegedly encouraged to report those who are defying the orders of the leadership.

“There was a lot of tension within the brethren and they were encouraged to spy and tell on each other if they see that they might be against the church administration,” Carlos said.

Being expelled from the religious group, also called “tiwalag,” is said to be the worst thing that can happen to an INC member. For many, being subjected to it means you can no longer be "saved" or even lose benefits that come with membership in the church.

An expulsion decision is finalized ideally only after going through a rigorous process, an INC source told Rappler. The expelled member’s name is removed from the official roster and immediately announced in the following church service. (FAST FACTS: What does 'tiwalag' mean for Iglesia ni Cristo?)

Expelled members cannot attend INC-related activities, and in many cases, are barred from speaking to other members. This is precisely why many are afraid to speak up or go against the orders of the church leadership publicly.

“The paranoia became really high, everyone was being afraid of being reported,” Jose said.

There are INC members who have publicly challenged the leadership only to be persecuted and expelled. Others have reduced their involvement in church activities and are just waiting to be called out, lacking enough courage to actually terminate their membership given the repercussions. (READ: Ex-INC members alarmed over 'disappearances')

Guia believes that the loss of confidence of many of INC members could have been avoided if only the leadership was open to the questions they had. The lack of transparency only worsened things.

“It would help if they would just explain to us what’s happening just so I can see their openness to discuss what members feel about the controversies,” she said.

“I think it would make me more comfortable, more safer to be part of the church.” – Rappler.com

*Names of the subjects have been changed for their protection.

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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