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Philippines-based church has 'means and motivation' to kill refugee if returned: IRB

The Immigration and Refugee Board has found a Philippines-based church with chapters across Canada "is motivated by a vendetta" against a dissident who sought refugee status in B.C., and has "both the means and the motivation to seriously harm or kill" him, should he return to the Philippines.

Lowell Menorca is ruled 'in need of protection' and granted refugee status in Canada

Lowell Menorca holds a photo he says was left on his car in the Philippines showing his family with a red 'X' through the face of his then-two-year-old daughter and the warning, 'Say Goodbye.' He fled the country and sought refugee status in Canada. (Gavin Fisher/CBC)

The Immigration and Refugee Board has found a Philippines-based church with chapters across Canada "is motivated by a vendetta" against a dissident who sought refugee status in B.C., and has "both the means and the motivation to seriously harm or kill" him, should he return to the Philippines.

In accepting Lowell Menorca's claim for refugee status, an IRB panel has ruled he's "a person in need of protection from a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment and a risk to his life."

CBC News has a lightly redacted copy of the panel's decision from Menorca and has confirmed its authenticity with the IRB.

The ruling ends 20 months of uncertainty for the church dissident, who fled to Canada in April 2016.

"I was ecstatic. I was overcome with joy," says Menorca of the IRB's findings.

"I cried and I cried, and thanked God that finally this was the vindication I was praying for."

This Iglesia Ni Cristo church in Burnaby, B.C., is one of close to 40 across Canada. (CBC)

Menorca, 40, is a former unordained minister with the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC), or Church of Christ.

He generated headlines in the Philippines after he broke with the church leadership and became a dissident.

Menorca had claimed that members of the INC abducted him, attempted to kill him and threatened the life of his young daughter. 

He made the same allegations before the IRB, and the panel found he was "a credible witness and therefore believes what he has alleged in support of his claim" after hearing his testimony and reviewing "a significant amount of corroborative evidence provided by the claimant."

The IRB also found that Menorca would find little or no protection if returned to the Philippines.

"When the panel considers the links between the INC and the law enforcement authorities in the Philippines, the general climate of impunity that pervades Philippines law enforcement particularly with respect to the issue of extrajudicial killing, and the level of corruption that exists in the Philippines government and law enforcement apparatus, the panel is satisfied [Menorca] would be unable to avail himself of state protection, from the risks that he fears in that country," writes the IRB.

"[The INC's] power and influence extends to an ability to utilize [police] to target the claimant."

'The one true church'

According to the church's website, the INC was founded in 1914 by a man it claims was "the last messenger of God."

The Iglesia Ni Cristo is now the third largest religious organization in the Philippines after Catholicism and Islam.

While the church doesn't release membership numbers, the latest Philippines census estimates the INC has three million followers in that country. Some other sources believe it's triple that number.

The INC website says it is "the one true church" which has emerged "in these last days for the salvation of mankind."

For its centennial in 2014, the INC's growing wealth allowed it to build the world's largest indoor arena at an estimated cost of $250 million Cdn.

The Iglesia Ni Cristo has supporters around the world, primarily in expatriate Filipino communities.

It lists 39 places of worship across Canada, including 11 in Alberta and 10 each in Ontario and B.C..

Eduardo V. Manalo became executive minister of the Iglesia Ni Cristo in 2009. (Youtube/ Iglesia Ni Cristo)

The IRB decision notes Menorca's problems with the INC began "due to an internal division within the church's leadership".

At that time, the founder's grandson, Eduardo V. Manalo, took over as the INC's executive minister.

Menorca has said the INC began to suspect he was affiliated with an anonymous blogger who alleged a cult of personality had developed around Manalo. The dissident blogger also accused the church leaders — known as "the Church Administration" — of overspending and corruption.

'Irresponsible' to comment: INC lawyer

In an interview with CBC News in 2016, INC spokesperson Rommel V. San Pedro denied the church was a cult and predicted Menorca's refugee claim would be rejected because the church posed "no threat."

San Pedro did not respond to CBC News requests for reaction to Menorca's successful application.

Lowell Menorca says his wife and two children, ages one and four, are currently in hiding in Asia. He hopes to bring them to Canada. (Lowell Menorca)

The church has retained Vancouver lawyer Roger McConchie, who has demanded a complete copy of the Immigration and Refugee Board's decision.

CBC News first provided the church with the relevant paragraphs in mid-December — and then, with Menorca's consent, supplied the lightly redacted version in the CBC's possession on January 19.

In numerous emails to the CBC, McConchie wrote the church will not comment for now, pending its own investigation of the IRB decision.

But the IRB says proceedings before the Refugee Protection Division are private under immigration law — and while the church can request a copy under access to information, "personal information would not be released without the claimant's written consent or unless otherwise authorized by law."

INC members sought Menorca's death: IRB

In its analysis of Menorca's evidence, the Immigration panel found "members of the INC have previously detained the claimant unlawfully and did attempt to have [Menorca] killed" in the Philippines.

To back up his claim, the IRB also noted Menorca had provided Philippine news articles "establishing a number of former INC members who had spoken out against the INC have been murdered."

While noting there is no direct evidence of church involvement, the panel found "this evidence persuasive with respect to the motivation and capability of the INC to violently silence individuals who speak out against the organization."

Among the allegations the IRB considered was Menorca's claim that in July 2015, he "was kidnapped … by armed men led by an INC minister. The armed men were police officers acting outside their jurisdiction. These individuals … then threw a grenade into the back seat of the vehicle in a possible attempt to kill the claimant. The grenade didn't go off."

Despite noting the panel initially had concerns regarding the plausibility of Menorca's description of the kidnapping event, it found "despite its strange appearance, given the strong corroborative evidence provided … on the balance of probabilities, the alleged kidnapping took place in the manner described."

The IRB also looked into Menorca's allegation "he was then taken to the INC central compound … and detained there with his wife and child for three months," until he made "a televised statement denying he had been abducted by the church."

When Menorca recanted that statement after gaining his freedom, he alleged he "was expelled from the church, and he began to receive death threats and harassment through social media."

Another allegation the IRB weighed was Menorca's claim that in March 2016, "a letter [he] perceived to be a death threat against his daughter was placed on the windshield of his vehicle."

Menorca says this note showing an 'X' through his daughter's face was placed on the windshield of his car. (Lowell Menorca)

The letter, shown to CBC News, contains a photograph of Menorca's family, with a red "X" through the face of his then two-year-old daughter and the warning, "Say Goodbye."

After this, Menorca fled the Philippines with his family.

But while Menorca had a valid visa to fly to the U.S., his daughter and pregnant wife did not.

He says he left them in hiding in Asia, while he boarded a flight to Seattle that was routed through Vancouver. When he landed in Canada, he immediately sought refugee status.

Previous church denials

In the past, the INC's spokesperson called Menorca's claims "fabricated" and "devious."

In June 2016, Rommel V. San Pedro told CBC News, "Who's not to say Menorca didn't get his friends to take a picture, "X" out his daughter's face, put it on the car, and allege that members of the church did that?"

Iglesia Ni Cristo attorney Rommel V. San Pedro has said in the past that Menorca's claims about the church are 'fabricated.' (CBC)

San Pedro also dismissed Menorca's claim that members of the INC in Canada were following the dissident.

Photographs showing Menorca in local shopping malls had been posted to Facebook, with comments such as "Watch your back, someone is behind you."

"You can easily make up identities on Facebook and then create a scenario or create an image of something like that happening," said San Pedro at the time. "But who's to say that's members of the Church of Christ?"    

"In the end, the Canadian government is going to see through all of these allegations and see there's no threat."

The IRB decision has now found the opposite was true.

Menorca hopes to bring family to Canada

Now that Menorca has refugee status, he's hoping to be quickly granted permanent residency by the Canadian government so he can bring his young family to B.C.— including his 14-month-old son born overseas in his absence.

"I still haven't held him in my hands, in my arms," says Menorca, fighting back emotion.

"I hope there is a way that I can get them here as soon as possible, now that I have been granted protected-person status here in Canada. And I will still continue to find ways so I can get them here as soon as possible."

"They will never be safe, fully safe, unless we're all together."

About the Author

Eric Rankin

Investigative journalist

Eric Rankin is an award-winning CBC reporter and producer. His honours include RTDNA national and regional awards for in-depth/investigative reporting.