By Jason GUTIERREZ
MANILA (AFP) – More than 1.5 million people converged on the Philippine capital Monday for a powerful Christian sect’s evangelical event, causing traffic chaos that shut down large parts of the megacity.
The gathering of the secretive and politically influential Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) in the historic district of Manila forced all schools and some government offices to close.
The Supreme Court, as well as some basketball games in the highly popular college league, were also suspended, while Manila’s governing authority urged private employers to give their staff a paid day off to avoid the traffic.
“We really apologize for those who were inconvenienced. Maybe they can just pass this off as a minor sacrifice to help their countrymen,” Iglesia ni Cristo spokesman Edwin Zaballa told AFP.
Iglesia ni Cristo, which is believed to have about three million members, held the event ostensibly as a medical and charity mission, with its followers giving aid to residents of huge slums.
Zaballa said it was also part of year-long celebrations across the country to mark the lead-up to its centenary in 2014, and “to spread the word”.
Between two and three million people attended the event either as a church follower or aid recipient, according to Manila’s police chief, Isagani Genade. The organisers estimated the crowd at between 1.5 million and two million people.
The event is one of many ostentatious displays of faith in the mainly Catholic Philippines, where religious leaders also wield heavy political influence.
However, not everyone attending was celebrating.
In a square fronting Manila’s central post office, tempers frayed during the fierce afternoon heat as men, women and children jostled while waiting for medical care offered by the group.
“This is madness. I have been here since dawn to get a free medical check-up, but I will get more sick in this heat,” said factory worker Flor Kato, a 40-year-old mother of five who was complaining of chest pains.
Several people fainted due to the heat, while others simply gave up in frustration.
Founded by Felix Manalo in 1914, Iglesia ni Cristo exerts huge political influence in the Philippines, despite being outnumbered by the country’s more than 75 million Catholics.
Its followers are instructed to vote as a bloc, so politicians often seek their leaders’ anointment during election season.
Its teachings are more conservative than the Catholic Church, with its followers not allowed to marry non-members.
Former members claim they were also required to give 10 percent of their salaries to the church, though Zaballa said this was not the case and instead “members are encouraged to contribute any amount they can”.
When Erano Manalo, Felix’s son and successor as leader of the church, died in 2009, then-president Gloria Arroyo declared the day of his funeral a public holiday.
In a major show of force last year, sect members held peaceful rallies across the Philippines to protest the ouster of graft-tainted Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona, who had known links with its leaders.
That rally was also taken as a sign of a breaking of ties with President Benigno Aquino, who had won the support of the church in the 2010 elections but then spearheaded Corona’s impeachment.
Zaballa said Monday’s gathering was merely an evangelical exercise.
“We do not mean it as a show of force,” he said.
But Senator Miriam Santiago, a politician known in the Philippines for speaking against powerful interests, disagreed.
“There is a message behind the INC event today. If you are a politician and you don’t get it, you are a fool,” Santiago posted on Twitter.