Gov’t open to INC dialogue

MANILA — The Aquino administration is willing to sit down and talk with the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) following the massive protest action deploring its alleged religious persecution.

“Government may be open to dialogue with citizens and organizations to discuss legitimate concerns,” Presidential Communications Operations Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said in a text message to the Manila Bulletin.

Coloma made the remarks when asked if the government will initiate a dialogue with the INC to iron out the conflict arising from the filing of a criminal complaint against the group’s leaders.

However, he strongly denied allegations the government has violated the INC’s religious freedom as well as the doctrine on the separation between the church and the state. He pointed out that it is the government’s duty to ensure the compliance of the country’s laws but will not take an “adversarial position” against the religious group.

“Government observes the constitutional principle and does not interfere in the internal matters of any organization,” Coloma said.

“With respect to complaints filed by any citizen or entity, the Government is duty bound to take cognizance, in accordance with law,” he added.

Thousands of INC members have staged a protest rally at the EDSA-Shaw intersection since Friday, decrying Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s alleged persecution of the Iglesia leadership.

The protesters have criticized De Lima for prioritizing the illegal detention case filed againt the INC leaders instead of more important cases such as the killing of 44 Special Action Force members in Mamasapano.

The INC protest has grown bigger since it began outside the Department of Justice building in Manila, causing monstrous traffic jams along EDSA last weekend.

Coloma said the government respects the INC’s freedom to hold a public assembly but reminded the group that such freedom requires responsibility.

“Ang mahalaga rito ‘yung pagkilala natin na ang paggamit ng kalayaan, katulad ng kalayaan sa pamamahayag, ay may kaakibat itong responsiblidad na obserbahan ang mga batas at maging magalang din sa karapatan ng ibang mga mamamayan (The important thing is the use of freedom such as freedom of speech comes with responsibility to follow the laws and respect the rights of other people),” he said over government radio.

Coloma said the government continues to monitor the situation to ensure the peaceful and orderly assembly of the INC members while looking after the welfare of the majority. He said they also wanted to check the INC rally complies with the country’s laws and does not cause further inconvenience to the general public.

“The focus of the government is to ensure the safety of the public as well as peace and order,” he said in the same interview in Filipino.

Earlier, President Aquino directed government officials to ensure the safety of the public as well as prevent groups from taking advantage of the INC protest for their personal end.

Shortly after the President’s order, Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas met with concerned police, traffic and local government officials to map out the plan to ease the traffic situation along EDSA.

INC news website, eaglenews.ph, said reported yesterday that more provinces were represented in its peaceful assembly on EDSA, including Agusan del Norte, Pampanga, and Zambales, among others.
In Pangasinan, more INC members were loaded into buses enroute to Manila to join mass the actions yesterday.

“Hindi lang po isang individuwal sa bawat pamilya ang pupunta. Hangga’t may pagkakataon, buong pamilya ko pa ganun din sa iba ang pupunta para naman makapagbigay kami ng suporta sa aming ipinaglalaban (Not just individuals but whole families are going. Once there’s a chance, my whole family and that of others are going to give support for the cause we’re fighting for),” said one INC member from Dagupan City.

In Cebu, INC members are planning to kick off a two-day protest rally similar to the one in EDSA today.
At the EDSA-Shaw Boulevard intersection, the mood has been festive and concert-like although, briefly, there was some tension when a vendor tried to stab a fellow vendor near the makeshift stage set up by the INC.

It was around 2 a.m. and some 500 INC protesters were forcused on the program onstage when suspect Ronel Raot, an umbrella vendor, allegedly tried to stab Bernard Montavo, who also sells umbrellas.
Fortunately, Raot did not manage to hit Montavo who quickly evaded and ran away from the former.

At that instant, the protesters intervened and called on police to address the altercation.

Although the permit to assemble accorded to them by the city government of Mandaluyong was only until yesterday, the INC was seeking a one-day extension to the permit, the Eaglenews website said as the mid-afternoon crowd yesterday swelled to thousands.

But in a letter, signed by Mayor Benjamin Abalos Jr. and Ernesto Victorino, city administrator, the organizers of the INC protest were told that no extension will be granted.

Meanwhile, an official of the INC appealed to commuters for understanding amid the traffic snarl caused by their so-called “Occupy Edsa” assembly.

“Doon po sa mga commuters, humihingi po kami ng dispensa. Alam po namin ang pakiramdam ng nata-traffic, natatagalan sa paglalakbay. Alam po namin ‘yon. Ayaw po naming mangyari ‘yon sana (To the commuters, we apologize. We know how it feels to be stuck in traffic. We know that very well and that is something we also want to avoid)” Edwil Zabala, INC spokesman, said on Saturday.

“Pero nakikiusap po kami sa inyo. Sana po, unawain na lang po ninyo, hindi kami permanenteng titira rito. Matatapos din po ito (We are appealing to you for understanding. We wont stay here permanently. This will also end),” he added.

Zabala explained that they were only forced to rally because their request for a fair process of the law was not given.

“Wala sanang pagtitipon sa Padre Faura na nangyari kung yung aming hinihiling na patas na pagpapatupad ng proseso sa batas, ibinigay, hindi minaneobra (There wont be a gathering in Padre Faura if we were given a fair process of the law and did not manipulate it),” he added.
All they ask for from the public right now, he said is a bit of understanding and patience, said Zabala.

He also had one more message to the authorities: “Gusto naming iparating sa mga kinauukulan, tigilan nila ang panggugulo sa amin… hindi namin sila ginugulo. Kung pwede lang, huwag nila kaming guluhin (We want to say this to authorities to leave us alone…We are not causing any problem to them. So, please leave us alone).”

As political allies of the Aquino administration opted to steer clear of the INC protest, Representatives Nery Colmenares (Bayan Muna Party-list) and 1 BAP Partylist Rep. Silvestre Bello said the government is simply doing its job.

Colmenares said that while the INC’s right to protest should be upheld, the right of Isaias Samson – the former INC minister who filed the case against the administrative council of the INC – to file charges as a citizen of the country should not be violated.

Bello, on the other hand, advised Justice Secretary Leila de Lima – whom the INC leadership wants to resign for initiating a preliminary investigation into the complaint – to “just do your job” as a Cabinet official.

He said De Lima’s decision to look into the complaint of Samson is clearly part of her duty as secretary of justice.

“Just do your job! In the end, you will end up doing the right thing,” Bello told De Lima.
At the same time, Bello asked Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas to guarantee that peace and order is maintained in INC rally sites and ignore the sect’s block voting influence.

Both Roxas and De Lima have set their sights at political runs in 2016 with the former eyeing the presidency while the latter, expecting a senatorial post , both as Liberal Party candidates.

For Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, who chairs the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, De Lima has the right to take up the case against the INC leadership as part of her duty as head of the Department of Justice (DOJ) because, afterall, the case may be nothing.

Pimentel said that while the group has the right to exercise their freedom of assembly, he disagrees with the INC’s call for the DOJ not to prioritize the case.

“I disagree, because instead of asking for that, we should be calling on the DOJ to expedite the case; to tell them not to do so, is not acceptable,” Pimentel said in an interview over Radio DZBB.

“What if the DOJ acts on the case and immediately and finds it nothing then it might just dismiss the complaint. That’s the way it is. Anyone has a right to file a criminal complaint especially if it is important to him, especially if he feels his rights were violated,” Pimentel pointed out.