Sen. Francis Escudero was on broadcaster Anthony Taberna’s radio program last Thursday evening, echoing the Iglesia ni Cristo’s demand that it be left alone to solve its own problems. “Away pamilya ito (This is a family spat),” he said, breezily advising Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to back off from the illegal detention complaint filed by former INC minister Isaias Samson Jr. against the church’s governing advisory council.
Taberna asked Escudero what he thought Secretary De Lima stood to gain from doing what was supposed to be part of her work. I don’t know, Escudero giggled, adding that the secretary should instead attend to the Mamasapano cases.
What would De Lima gain? Nothing but the scorn of the Iglesia, and definitely nothing beneficial to her political career. But that’s exactly how we expect people in the justice system to behave. I’m sure it would have gladdened the hearts of the block-voting Iglesia had De Lima simply allowed Samson’s complaint to die unattended at the Department of Justice. They would have owed her big, and made sure she is remembered as a reliable friend on Election Day. But, perhaps she is not fully aware of what’s at stake here for the Iglesia.
I don’t know if it was just a coincidence, but, the other day, a gunman sprayed bullets on Taberna’s newly opened coffee shop in Quezon City. I learned later that the radio host, himself a member of the Iglesia, is a nephew of Samson’s. Did some people think he was being biased? I didn’t think so, but maybe some INC members weren’t pleased with the neutral stance he seemed to be taking on the issue.
As I write this, hundreds of INC members are reported to be congregating along busy Edsa, which has been the site of past people power protests. They are there, they say, not to topple the government, but to demand that the authorities respect the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. They want the justice department to dismiss the Samson complaint outright, and to let the church hierarchy deal with its recalcitrant members.
I find their interpretation of religious freedom and church-state separation disturbing. I can’t blame them for believing that their church is under threat. Maybe it is, but certainly not from the state. I am aghast that lawyers like Senator Escudero, Vice President Jejomar Binay, and Ferdinand Topacio view this matter as an issue of religious freedom. To say so, I think, is to pander to people’s emotions.
I am not a lawyer, and therefore my understanding of the Constitution could be limited. But, to me, religious freedom simply means the right to profess—or not to profess—a religious faith. It does not mean that actions taken in the name of one’s faith, or within the precincts of one’s church, are exempted from legal scrutiny or liability. Religious clerics who abuse their parishioners, particularly children, are answerable not only to the church but to the nation’s courts as well. Church officials who are charged by their own members with committing crimes cannot expect the state to back off while they deal with these charges within their organization.
Church-state separation only means that the state is prohibited from establishing an official church or a state religion. Nothing in this doctrine says that these two domains—the church and the state—cannot peer into each other’s affairs. Churches do it all the time, criticizing state policies, telling governments to shape up, and condemning public officials for corruption and oppression. So, why can’t the state investigate and prosecute erring church officials, especially when the complaints are coming from the members themselves?
Senator Escudero argues that the INC controversy, which first broke out in July, is away pamilya. Perhaps it is, and, I agree, to the extent possible, the family should be given every chance to solve its own problems its own way. But there are limits to what the head of a family can do. You can’t detain the other members against their wish. You are not allowed to use violence against a spouse, or any family member, particularly the children. When family squabbles get out of hand, the state cannot stand by and merely watch as individual rights are violated.
When the widow of the highly revered executive minister Eraño “Ka Erdy” Manalo, “Ka Tenny,” and her son Angel, posted a video last July claiming their lives were in danger and pleading for help from other INC members, what was the government supposed to do? I think if this were just another family, the police would not have hesitated to barge into their compound to investigate. Or if this were just another religious sect, and not the politically influential INC, someone would have called for a congressional inquiry in aid of legislation. Nothing like that has happened.
People in government were careful not to step on powerful toes in the Iglesia hierarchy. Events took a different turn only when Isaias Samson Jr. surfaced and spoke to media, telling a horrifying story of how he and his family had been detained on orders of the Iglesia’s advisory council. He said he was suspected of being the principal source of derogatory information about corruption in the Iglesia hierarchy, a charge he denies.
When Secretary De Lima gave Samson’s formal complaint due course, the Iglesia hierarchy took this action as an act of hostility. A thousand INC members trooped to De Lima’s office, blocking the road fronting the Department of Justice building on Padre Faura. She could have been lynched if she had tried to talk to them, as Sen. Grace Poe naively suggested.
Nothing is more explosive than the mixture of religion and politics.
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