Crisis grips election-swaying Philippine religious sect

MANILA - A simmering family feud has plunged a powerful religious sect that has held sway over elections in the Philippines into a deep crisis.

The homegrown Christian group Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) announced on Thursday that it has expelled two members of its late founder's family for supposedly sowing disunity.

The expulsion came after Mrs Cristina Manalo, daughter-in-law of Iglesia founder Felix Manalo, and her son, Angel, claimed in a video uploaded on YouTube on Wednesday that their lives were in danger, and that a church minister had been abducted.

Mrs Manalo is mother of the sect's current leader, Mr Eduardo Manalo, and wife of former executive minister Erano Manalo, who died in 2009.

An earlier blog written by a purported Iglesia member alleged that nine minsiters had been expelled, and that some were being tortured in police camps for challenging the sect's leaders.

In a news briefing on Thursday, Iglesia's general evangelist Bienvenido Santiago said Mrs Manalo and her son were lying.

He suggested that the two had insisted on meddling in the sect's affairs.

He said Mr Eduardo Manalo signed off on the expulsions.

"Everyone must know that the Iglesia is not a family corporation. It is a religion that follows God's teachings and commandments as written in the Bible," said Mr Santiago.

Founded by Mr Felix Manalo as an alternative to the Catholic church in 1914, the Iglesia now has 2.25 million followers and churches spanning the globe.

It has used its numbers to sway elections in the Philippines, openly endorsing or rejecting candidates for presidents and senators, and instructing its members to vote as a bloc.

President Benigno Aquino and his two predecessors, Mrs Gloria Arroyo and Mr Joseph Estrada, were backed by the Iglesia.

Nearly all of the sect's candidates for senators have been winning since 1998.

The Iglesia, in turn, has lobbied for key government posts.

It has managed to get appointed two justice ministers, a police chief, a high court judge, and two heads of the Philippines' equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It has also been accused of having a tight grip on the customs bureau.

rdancel@sph.com.sg