Subpoena for Iglesia ni Cristo? No certainty

Edu Punay, Aurea Calica - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The government will treat complaints involving the Iglesia ni Cristo like any other case, Malacañang said yesterday, and there is no certainty that INC leaders will be summoned by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for preliminary investigation.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. gave the assurance as he brushed aside suspicions that the religious group is being harassed or given special treatment.

The DOJ has yet to constitute the team that will handle the preliminary probe on complaints of serious illegal detention, harassment and coercion filed against eight INC ministers by expelled members Isaias Samson Jr. and Lito Fruto.

Several prosecutors explained to The STAR that DOJ rules allow respondents not to appear in PI and instead submit their counter-affidavits to prosecutors of their choice and swear to their truthfulness. They said there are instances where it is inconvenient or impossible for the respondents to personally appear before DOJ hearings.

“The complaint filed by Mr. Isaias Samson Jr. will be treated like any other case and that we believe is the essence of fairness,” Coloma said.

The DOJ has announced it would summon INC leaders for a preliminary investigation into the criminal charges against them. Serious illegal detention is a non-bailable offense.

“They are simply implementing the standard procedures in accordance with law and this is the same procedure followed by the NPS in processing all complaints submitted to its offices,” Coloma said, referring to the National Prosecution Service.

The eight respondents are members of the 10-man Sanggunian, the INC’s highest administrative council.

Coloma maintained the government was not intruding into the internal affairs of INC or violating the principle of separation of church and state.

Asked whether the DOJ’s move might again trigger protest actions from the INC, Coloma said the government is committed to upholding the rule of law and implementing legal processes “uniformly and fairly.”

“We reiterate that government does not interfere in the internal affairs of any legitimate organization. We have conveyed to the INC that these are guiding principles informing all actions of government,” Coloma said.

Samson, former editor-in-chief of INC’s official publication Pasugo, alleged that the respondents prevented him and his family from leaving their house in Quezon City last July after he was accused of being blogger “Antonio Ebanghelista,” who attacked the INC on his blog site.

Fruto, on the other hand, filed harassment charges against members of the INC Sanggunian for supposedly concocting rape charges that led to the issuance of an arrest warrant and hold departure order against him.

He said the harassment came after he sided with Angel and Lolita Manalo, siblings of executive minister Eduardo Manalo, in questioning the church’s leadership.

The eight respondents were Glicero Santos Jr., Radel Cortez, Bienvenido Santiago Sr., Mathusalem Pareja, Rolando Esguerra, Eraño Codera, Rodelio Cabrerra and Maximo Bularan.

De Lima vowed fairness in the conduct of the preliminary investigation. Part of the PI, she said, would be the issuance of subpoena requiring the respondents to appear during preliminary investigation.

De Lima’s order to have the complaints investigated sparked street protests by INC members from Aug. 27 to Aug. 31. The protesters first converged outside the DOJ complex on Padre Faura in Manila before marching to EDSA where they stalled traffic for hours and disrupted businesses. The protest activities also left tons of garbage on EDSA and other major streets in Metro Manila.

Amid public outrage against the street protests, INC officials accused De Lima of disregarding the principle of the separation of church and state and of giving “extraordinary” attention to the complaints.

The INC’s decision to cut short its protest actions raised speculation that a compromise had been reached between the Palace and the religious group, including the resignation of De Lima.

But soon after the end of INC’s street protests, De Lima returned to her office and declared the government would proceed with its investigation into the complaints against the eight ministers.

Procedure questioned

Meanwhile, a lawyer who is an INC member questioned yesterday the DOJ’s handling of the complaints against some leaders of the religious group.

Ferdinand Topacio said the DOJ should not have docketed the complaints but “should have instead referred the complaints to the Quezon City prosecutor’s office, which has the proper jurisdiction (over them),” he told The STAR.

Topacio expressed belief that the move of the DOJ only proved the “extraordinary attention” given by De Lima to the complaints of Samson and Fruto. The INC considers Samson’s and Fruto’s complaints “internal matter.”

The lawyer even suggested that the respondents should seek relief from the courts to stop the DOJ proceedings.

Topacio also clarified that he was only “talking hypothetically” when he admitted alleged kalokohan or irregularities within the group.

“I would like to clarify the statement attributed to me to the effect that I purportedly admitted that there were ‘real kalokohan’ within the INC. What I said was that if there were really kalokohan inside the INC, then it should be investigated internally. In other words, I was talking hypothetically,” Topacio said in a text message.

“After vigorously defending the INC for five days, it would be totally out of character for me to make damning admissions,” he said.

Topacio was referring to the story in The STAR that came out on Thursday. In an interview at the Kapihan sa Luneta Hotel Forum, Topacio categorically said that there were problems in the INC.

The camp of Samson, on the other hand, urged the DOJ to expedite its probe on his allegations. Aie Balagtas See

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