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 Manila rain to attend the centennial celebration of the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), in an event designed to show off 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 the 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.

- Outsize influence -

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

The INC is at odds with the 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 it 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 bloc for political candidates given the blessing of INC leaders. As a result, many politicians are quick to pay it their respects.

Ramon Casiple, head of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said Sunday's massive gathering also served to project the INC's influence on society at large.

"It cannot be denied that they are making use of the occasion to flex their muscles," he told AFP.

"Their message is: we are here, you have to deal with us, particularly during the 2016 (national) elections," he said.

Although Philippine President Benigno Aquino is not an INC member, he paid tribute to the group when he attended the opening of the Philippine Arena on July 21.

"From the bottom of my heart, I thank the Iglesia ni Cristo for the sympathy you have shown your brothers. You have truly displayed sympathy, not just in words but also in deeds," he said, citing the aid provided to victims of the frequent natural disasters that hit the country.

"Thank you also for the support you have shown my administration in furthering good governance," he added.