Filipino man claims death threats from members of powerful Christian church
Lowell Menorca says he fears persecution from the Iglesia Ni Cristo. They say his claims are 'fabrications''
A Filipino man has applied for refugee status in Canada claiming the lives of his young family have been threatened by members of what he calls a "cult-like" Christian church in the Philippines — and he alleges to CBC News he's still being stalked in Metro Vancouver.
Lowell Menorca, 39, a former un-ordained minister in the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC), or Church of Christ, brought his allegations to the CBC in his first major English language interview.
His case has generated headline news coverage in the Philippines.
Iglesia Ni Cristo is the third largest faith in the Philippines after Catholicism and Islam, and it has hundreds of churches around the world, including many in Canada.
The INC preaches these are "the last days," and only its members will be saved. According to the church's doctrines, to be expelled means losing your salvation.
Menorca says the INC expelled him after a split developed among descendants of the man who founded the church. He says he was suspected of being an anonymous blogger who had accused INC leaders of overspending and corruption.
Menorca believes the leadership has wasted vast amounts of money on things such as a private Airbus jetliner (since sold) and the construction of the Philippine Arena, the biggest covered stadium in the world, built to celebrate the INC's centennial in 2014.
He alleges he was illegally detained by Church officials, arrested by police and then hit with more than 40 lawsuits for libel for speaking out about his alleged treatment from the church.
"This is an orchestrated effort by the church to intimidate me," says Menorca, "to put me behind bars, ultimately to silence me."
But officials with the Iglesia Ni Cristo call Menorca's claims "fabricated" and "devious."
They say he's fleeing prosecution, not persecution, in the Philippines, and they expect the Canadian government to deny his refugee application.
The INC flew its San Francisco-based supervising attorney to Vancouver to answer the CBC's questions about the case.
"It's so obvious to see that he's fabricated this whole story", says Rommel V. San Pedro.
"In the end, the Canadian government is going to see through all of these allegations, and see there's no threat here."
"We can tell you there is no corruption inside the Iglesia Ni Cristo."
But Menorca claims he has proof church supporters have threatened his life and the lives of his pregnant wife and two-year-old child.
Alleged threat to daughter
Menorca's battle with the church came to a head three months ago in the Philippines.
On March 6 — the night before he was to appear at a court hearing against the INC — he claims a family member discovered a photo on the windshield of his car, parked at a safe house.
The family portrait, possibly lifted from Menorca's social media postings, had a red "x" through the face of his two-year-old daughter Yurie — and the warning "March 7, 2016, Say Goodbye."
It was signed "Mandirigma," Tagalog for "warriors"— a term often used online by some who purport to be defenders of the church.
"When I saw it, it literally crumbled my world" says a tearful Menorca.
"I really didn't want to stand by and watch if they're really going to push through with it, so that moment we decided that we would leave the country."
That night, he flew his family to Vietnam.
But he claims the intimidation continued.
Within hours, Menorca says photographs were posted on a Facebook site that appears to target those expelled from the INC, showing his family on the plane and at the airport terminal.
Comments in Tagalog and English accompanied the pictures. Among them: "You can run but you can't hide" and "You will not be able to escape, you are an animal, you are evil!!!"
Intimidation continues in B.C.: Menorca
Menorca said his family next fled to Thailand, seeking a safe haven.
But while he had a valid Visa to the US, his daughter and his pregnant wife Jingky did not.
Menorca says he eventually made the difficult decision to board a flight to Seattle that routed through Vancouver. When he landed on Canadian soil he immediately approached immigration officials and sought refugee status in the hope he can bring his wife and child here.
However, he claims he has continued to be harassed by INC members here in Metro Vancouver, where there are nine congregations, according to the church's website.
Photographs of Menorca recently shopping in a local shopping mall were posted by another Facebook user who appears to be an INC follower.
Again, accompanying comments — seen by CBC News — said things such as:
"Watch your back, someone is behind you".
One poster writes: "Exact location(?)"
The response: "Guildford and Metrotown".
CBC News messaged the Facebook users who had posted images of Menorca in the mall.
One poster referred all questions to the western Canada ecclesiastical division of the INC.
Menorca also has video he says is of four burly Filipino men from Washington State who arrived unannounced at a recent Burnaby prayer meeting organised by dissidents of the church — including Menorca.
Church says Menorca "fabricates"
When asked about these incidents, including the apparently secretly-taken photographs of Menorca, the INC's North American lawyer again dismisses Menorca's version of the events.
"He makes up all these stories. He fabricates them … He's very ingenious. I mean, very devious" says Rommel V. San Pedro.
"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."
"You can easily make up identities on Facebook and then create a scenario or create an image of something like that happening. But who's to say that's members of the Church of Christ?"
San Pedro says the numerous libel cases launched against Menorca in the Philippines are from individuals, and church leaders "don't really care about Menorca."
"We care about our members. Our Lord Jesus Christ said if one sheep goes off, the shepherd goes after that lost sheep. And we have members who have been affected, confused by his rhetoric, confused by his fabrications," he said.
"What we're doing is we're visiting the members and we're explaining to them what he's doing, and we're encouraging our members to stay strong in the faith."
Controversy within the church
The INC was founded in 1914 by Felix Manalo, who claimed to be the last messenger of God.
The founder's grandson, Eduardo V. Manalo, is now the executive minister of the church.
The Philippine press has reported his siblings have raised issues over his authoritarian leadership, and have been fenced off within the church's central compound. The internal dispute remains on-going.
Eduardo V. Manalo, known as "EVM", is revered by his supporters.
A Youtube music video, produced by INCMedia Services, is entitled "I am One with EVM", and includes the lyrics, "Appointed by God in these last days, is our Church Administrator," and "For the church he will give his very life, and so we will remain on his side."
Leonora Angeles, associate professor at the University of BC's Institute of Social Justice, says the INC has encouraged a cult-like veneration of its leader.
"Observers of the church might say it has some cult-like characteristics ... you also have a very authoritarian leadership. What the inner circle dictates, everyone must follow."
Church lawyer Rommel V. San Pedro denies the INC is a cult.
"To label an organization as a cult is unfair. Why do we say we're the one true church? Our teachings ... every single doctrine can be found in the Bible."
Church has 'vast influence': expert
CBC News also sought out an expert on the INC in the Philippines.
Ramon Casiple, executive director of the independent nonprofit Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, has studied the church's influence on its members and on Philippine politics.
He says he doesn't discount the possibility the church's leadership has come down "swiftly and hard on whom they thought were the propagators of those stories" alleging corruption and lavish spending by the INC's leaders.
"There is a definite division," he says, referring to the split within the church, "But we don't know how far the division is going because the church is basically secretive and that's one of the basic tenets — that they don't go public on anything internal," says Casiple.
He believes the fears of Menorca and other alleged INC church members who have been expelled are "well founded because of the vast influence of the church on the politicians here, and on the military and police and even local officials."
Menorca has claimed to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board that he's not safe in the Philippines, because he alleges police and government officials are often INC members, or heavily influenced by the church, since the INC encourages its parishioners to "block vote" — delivering key votes in tight races.
That gives the small church a large influence, according to his refugee claim.
Menorca hopes the Canadian government will take all of this into account, when the Immigration and Refugee Board hears his application for refugee status.
Through tears, he remembered how he was treated here, when he arrived at Vancouver airport.
"The officer told me, 'You came to the right country.' I just felt some kind of relief, that hopefully this country will protect people like me, can protect my family, my wife and my daughter."
"I'm hoping that Canada can be a safe refuge for people who have been oppressed, by a church of all things."
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada will rule on the validity of Menorca's claims and allegations, later this summer.