Homegrown Philippine church centenary draws up to 2 million

As many as two million people gathered in the Philippine capital on Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of a powerful homegrown church, showcasing the conservative group's discipline and influence.

Some of the faithful waited overnight in the pouring rain to attend the centennial celebration of the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), in an event designed to showcase the religion's stunning success at home and abroad.

Government officials monitoring the gathering estimated that 1.6 to two million people gathered for the INC centennial, packing out a massive new arena built to mark the occasion and the nearby 20,000-seat Philippine Stadium, as well as huge tents erected on the grounds for the event.

Eduardo Manalo, leader of the Iglesia, known as the INC, said in a special sermon broadcast live to the faithful that the swift completion of the new Philippine Arena was proof of the group's divine support.

"The Philippine Arena was finished in two years and nine months when it should have taken five years. This is the work of God," he said at a sprawling compound being developed by the church.

The occasion was also used as an attempt to set world records, with the 55,000-seat arena certified as the world's biggest mixed-use theatre and the INC's 4,745-member choir declared the world's largest by an adjudicator from Guinness World Records.

Although the INC is a minority in the Philippines, where 80 percent of the 100 million people are Catholics, the Iglesia has considerable clout.

Media reports have estimated membership at around two to three million, with a rapid spread in scores of countries beyond the Philippines.

The Roman Catholic Church has for centuries been the dominant religious force in the former Spanish colony.

The INC is at odds with the Catholic Church on many fundamental issues of doctrine, and numerous outsiders perceive it as a much more conservative brand of Christianity.

INC's teachings are based on a rigid following of the Bible, and the church insists only its members qualify for salvation.

Members are required to marry within the church and must give it a portion of their salaries as well.

More significantly, they are required to vote as a block for candidates designated by INC leaders. As a result, many politicians are quick to pay their respects to the church.