Bocaue, Philippines - One of the world's biggest domed indoor arenas loomed over the horizon of this sleepy rural community outside the Philippine capital, Manila, on Monday, as tens of thousands from a secretive and politically influential Christian sect inched their way to its doors which were bathed in pre-dawn garish light.
The gathering was meant to celebrate the inauguration of the Iglesia Ni Cristo's (Church of Christ) Philippine Arena, a $200m indoor theatre than can house over 50,000 people with a dome spanning 3.6 hectares (36,000sq metres), just days before the sect marks its 100-year anniversary on July 27.
But it was also seen as political muscle flexing by the group, now considered as the country’s second most popular religion, next to Roman Catholicism. Official numbers are hard to come by, but the sect says its membership has "several million" members.
Iglesia is touted as the only religious group that votes in a block, and backing by the group could ensure a win in a closely-fought election for public office, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, a local non-profit think tank
"They have expanded their influence beyond their membership, and so the INC today can be considered to be at par with political parties or national political groups," Casiple told Al Jazeera.
"In an election where 40 million people vote, 2.5 million can spell the difference between winning and losing in a national contest. It is well organised, it has a very cohesive organisational structure, and I think it is consciously gaining power not only within government but also even within the society," Casiple said.
The country's top politicians know that all too well. During election season, candidates seek the blessing of Eduardo Manalo, a bespectacled man who cuts an imposing figure in his power suits, who is the Iglesia's executive minister and top spiritual leader by birthright. Manalo's grandfather declared himself the last messenger of God.
On this occasion, Manalo resembled more a politician in the halls of power than a minister in a pulpit as he personally greeted the country's top two leaders - President Benigno Aquino and Vice President JeJomar Binay - as well as leaders of Congress and other VIPS, including cabinet secretaries and police and military brass.
His group's flag and insignia flew alongside the country's official colours while the national anthem boomed on speakers across the dome, with the tightly guarded ceremony looking more like a state visit than a simple gathering of Iglesia faithful.
In his speech, Aquino paid tribute to the sect as a unifying force in country fractured by poverty, massive corruption, and political infighting. He said he personally supported the initiatives of the sect and was impressed by the group's sense of community building.
"You have proven that the Filipino can reach great heights, and that we can have achievements as lofty as any in the world," he said.
A state within a state?
In some ways, the sect has become an autonomous entity of its own, taking care of its members in remote areas where government presence is scarce, and plugging the gaping hole in terms of basic services that remain woefully lacking in many communities in the archipelago.
They have expanded their influence beyond their membership, and so the group today can be considered to be at par with political parties or national political groups.
In a series of major mass mobilisations the past year, millions of mostly slum dwellers were given free food and clothes as well as access to crucial medical attention, including in Manila where the event caused a massive gridlock that virtually shut down the capital.
Manalo and his ministers run a tight ship - people who marry outside the religion for instance can become outcasts, while men and women cannot mingle during church service. And while the sect has denied it, former members often say that tithes are imposed.
And while the Catholic Church remains the dominant religion as a legacy of centuries of Spanish colonial rule, many from its ranks are enticed to join the Iglesia because it is perceived as an institution not hobbled by scandals like those that have beset the Vatican.
"They work within the seams, [exploiting] weaknesses of the state," Casiple, who has studied the group closely, said. "In fact, INC is known for recruiting people in power, military, police, and politicians so they can have power beyond the numbers."
And many join in exchange for "opportunistic reasons" such as job placements and campaign machinery support during elections, he said.
"The strategy to get members from the elite, economic and political [fronts], works for them," Casiple said. "They have expanded their influence beyond their membership, and so the group today can be considered to be at par with political parties or national political groups."
Manalo's grandfather, Felix, founded the Iglesia in 1914 after being dissatisfied with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He went into seclusion with religious literature and emerged with the idea of the Iglesia as "the one true church" with all other religions, including the Catholic Church, as apostates.
'Messenger of God'?
Calling himself the last messenger of God, the charismatic Felix Manalo first preached to a handful of labourers, but at the time of his death in 1963, the group has established churches all over the Philippines. His son Erano inherited the post, and was credited for expanding the religion overseas, largely by tapping into the large community of Filipino overseas workers. It now has churches in nearly 100 countries.
We do not engage in politics, we do not meddle in government.
For former Catholic Ivy Petras, 55, joining the sect was initially more for practical reasons than spiritual growth. She said her husband passed away 10 years ago, leaving her with mounting debts and three children to feed and send to school.
"I tried asking for help from our local priest, but no help came," she said. "A friend told me we should pray in the Iglesia temple and there I will find my salvation. The minister was not only enlightening, but he arranged to help me and my family. They did not ask for anything in return, but I decided to become a member overnight."
Edwil Sabala, an Iglesia spokesman, said the church is constantly engaged in spreading its gospel, and acknowledged suggestions that its phenomenal growth in the past 100 years has made it an institution that can make a marked difference in the country.
"We do not engage in politics, we do not meddle in government. We simply want freedom to do what we have been doing for the past 100 years," he said. "If the perception because of that is, we have become powerful, well; all glory to the Lord God."
But he stressed the Iglesia would only back candidates who stood for good governance, and for uplifting the morals of the people.
This may be good news to Aquino, who won a six-year term in 2010 using "good governance" as a catch phrase and promising to end endemic corruption, but whose ruling Liberal party lacks a charismatic successor to push ahead with his reform agenda.
Source: Al Jazeera