The INC at 100

The most fascinating thing about the “Philippine Arena,” billed as “the world’s largest indoor multipurpose venue,” is probably not that it stands on Philippine soil but that it has been built by the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). Known for the distinctive architectural style of its churches, the INC usually builds small replicas of its central cathedral in nearly every town in which it has gathered a sizeable flock. But a gigantic dome to accommodate its occasional humongous gatherings seems, at first glance, excessive and out of character even for a church that is proudly marking its centennial year.

But, perhaps like J. Amado Araneta who built the Araneta Coliseum in the 1950s and made it the centerpiece of a 35-hectare business district in Cubao, Quezon City, the elders of the INC have been inspired by a vision of a modern city rising up from the rice fields of Bocaue, Bulacan. Indeed, in addition to a venue for religious services that can hold as many as 55,000 people, a modern commercial complex and housing facilities appear to be part of the INC’s plan for Ciudad Victoria. But, as important, this awesome newly-inaugurated indoor arena is intended to serve as a multipurpose venue for sports, entertainment and other events.

This is all understandable in view of the close proximity of Bulacan province to increasingly congested Metro Manila. It also makes perfect sense to open a facility of this size to multiple uses even if only to generate the funds necessary to maintain it. What is not immediately comprehensible to an outside observer is why a religious group, rather than a business corporation, would undertake this venture.

The differentiation between the sacred and the profane, which lies at the core of every religion, has always posed a challenge to people of faith, particularly in the secular modern world.  I guess that’s the reason why old churches are not used as party venues, and why there’s a sense of something missing when Masses are held inside a shopping mall. Still, there is no denying the fact that the sequestration of spaces for exclusive purposes has come to an end. And so even as the INC dome was originally conceived as a venue for worship, the message is out that event organizers are welcome to rent the Philippine Arena, so long as the activities to be held do not contradict the beliefs and ideals of the INC. Thus, for instance, cockfighting that involves gambling will not be allowed.

Presumably, the restriction does not apply to political meetings and rallies, school graduations, homecomings and reunions. But, one wonders if the same welcoming mat would be extended to rival religious groups—like the Jesus is Lord congregation led by Brother Eddie Villanueva, or the El Shaddai community of Brother Mike Velarde, or the Dating Daan group of Brother Eli Soriano, or indeed to the dominant Roman Catholic Church. One can imagine what a perfect venue for a papal Mass the entire Ciudad Victoria complex would make when Pope Francis visits the Philippines next year. Of course, it is one thing for the Catholic Church to even think of it, and quite another for the INC to agree.

It would be an entirely different matter if the lease of the INC indoor arena and the adjoining outdoor parks and facilities were a purely business proposition. One would then expect it to be neutral to all groups and hospitable to all types of legitimate use—economic benefit being the primary, if not the sole, criterion for such decisions.

It is interesting to note (from a Wikipedia entry on the subject) that the ownership of the Philippine Arena is in the name of the New Era University, an educational institution founded by the Iglesia ni Cristo. I presume the university is a tax-exempt entity. That status might change once it begins leasing facilities like the Philippine Arena for nonreligious and noneducational activities on a regular basis. Catholic institutions have faced this dilemma for a long time. Article VI, Section 28, paragraph 3, of the 1987 Constitution exempts religious corporations from the payment of taxes. But that exemption does not cover incomes earned from activities that are not exclusively or directly religious, charitable or educational in nature.

The emergence of these issues is no doubt symptomatic of changing conditions in the larger society. With growing secularization, the public begins to question the special privileges given to religious groups. This is particularly so when churches actively intervene as players in, for example, secular spheres like politics or business. Consequently, there has been much debate on how the religious function is to be understood, and how it is actually performed in the transition to modernity.

The level of institutionalization that the Iglesia ni Cristo has been able to attain as a minority church is truly exceptional. That it is celebrating its 100th year as an autonomous religious community in a predominantly Catholic country is due in no small measure to its ability to take care of both the spiritual and material needs of its members. But, it also owes much to its capacity to use what small political influence it wields through its unified electoral vote to ensure its survival in any milieu rather than to shape government policy.

In contrast, the dominant Catholic Church in the Philippines has tried to shape government policy without wielding meaningful political clout. Indeed whatever residual influence it commands over governments has diminished in proportion to the modern recognition of the superiority of individual conscience over external coercion.

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