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Stroke victim who fled Philippines church granted asylum in Canada

An elderly and ailing woman who fled the Philippines has been granted refugee status in Canada — the Immigration and Refugee Board ruling she is a "person in need of protection" from her former church, the "Iglesia Ni Cristo."

The Immigration and Refugee board finds 74 year old 'a very easy target' of the Iglesia Ni Cristo church

Lowell Menorca cares for his mother, Fredisminda Menorca, partially paralyzed by a stroke shortly after she applied for refugee status in Canada. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

An elderly and ailing woman who fled the Philippines has been granted refugee status in Canada — the Immigration and Refugee Board ruling she is a "person in need of protection" from her former church.

The IRB panel found Fredisminda Robosa Menorca, 74, faces "a risk to her life or … [a risk] of cruel and unusual treatment and punishment" from the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) or Church of Christ.

"The claimant is afraid that if she returns to the Philippines she will be persecuted and mistreated by the church administration and their members, especially fanatical religious followers," noted the board decision.

Fredisminda Menorca is the mother of Lowell Menorca, 41, a former unordained minister-turned opponent of the INC's leadership.

INC has 'motivation and capacity to harm' refugee

The panel found the church has "the motivation and the capacity to harm her as a way of controlling or punishing her son."

Lowell Menorca has alleged members of the church abducted him, attempted to kill him and threatened the life of his young daughter when he lived in the Philippines.

He fled to Canada in 2016 and was granted refugee status last year.

"I'm really relieved and happy," he tearfully told CBC News after emerging from his mother's successful refugee hearing in Vancouver.

"I'm just thankful I'm here. I'm thankful that my mother is here."

A slightly redacted copy of the IRB decision was released to the CBC by Lowell Menorca and Independently verified.

Stroke victim 'a very easy target': IRB

Fredisminda Menorca was unavailable to comment on the IRB decision.

After arriving in Canada, she suffered a debilitating stroke that affected her speech and left her partially paralyzed and bedridden.

Fredisminda Roboso Menorca sought and has been granted refuge in Canada. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

She couldn't attend her own refugee hearing, instead providing her testimony through a designated representative appointed by the IRB.

Given her condition, the IRB notes Fredisminda Menorca would be especially vulnerable if sent back to the Philippines.

"As someone who is immobile and completely and utterly dependent on others for her daily life, the claimant is, simply put, a very easy target," wrote the panel.

'INC is a cult-like church': Fredisminda Menorca

Fredisminda Menorca alleges the "INC is a cult-like church"— something the Iglesia Ni Cristo has denied.

On its website, the organization preaches it's "the one true church" and only its members will be saved "in these last days."

The INC is believed to be the third largest religious group in the Philippines after Catholicism and Islam, although it does not release membership numbers.

This Iglesia Ni Cristo church in Burnaby, B.C., is one of hundreds around the world. (CBC)

The church has spread worldwide— listing 39 "places of worship" in Canada on its website, including 11 in Alberta and 10 each in Ontario and British Columbia.

'We don't care': INC minister

The INC did not respond to repeated requests for official reaction to the decision, but Paquito Ibañez, a Vancouver-based minister with the church, told CBC News, "We don't know why they decided and we don't care."

Vancouver-based lawyer Roger McConchie, retained by the INC after Lowell Menorca's successful refugee application last year, refused comment on Fredisminda Menorca's case.

'Agent of harm ... motivated by a personal vendetta': IRB

The immigration panel says Fredisminda Menorca's "agent of harm is motivated by a personal vendetta."

Menorca says a family member found this note on his car in the Philippines on March 6, 2016, the night before he was to appear at an INC-related court hearing. (Lowell Menorca)

In its report, the IRB notes that troubles began for her family in 2009, after a change in church leadership sparked internal dissent.

Lowell Menorca, whose late father was once responsible for the political affairs of the church, began to question the direction of the INC, according to the IRB findings.

Evidence presented at his immigration hearing last year indicated the church suspected he was an anonymous blogger who was accusing INC leaders, known as "the Church Administration," of overspending and corruption — and alleging a cult of personality had developed around the new leader, Eduardo V. Manalo.

Menorca says in 2015 he was kidnapped by church officials, held in an INC compound for three months along with his young family and mother, then saddled with over 40 lawsuits for criminal libel.

When a photo was found on the windshield of his vehicle with a red "X" through the face of his daughter, he put his family into hiding in Asia — and flew to Canada to apply for refugee status.

'Police...are controlled by the church': Fredisminda Menorca

In granting protection, first to Menorca and now his mother, the IRB notes the church dissidents would find little or no protection, if returned to the Philippines.

"(Fredisminda Menorca) alleges that police authorities, including high-ranking officers, are controlled by the church," the immigration panel wrote.

In Lowell Menorca's case, the IRB similarly found "[the INC's] power and influence extends to an ability to utilize [police] to target the claimant," in a country where "convictions for extra-judicial killings … are rare."

'Another step' to safety: Lowell Menorca

Lowell Menorca says his mother's successful refugee application is "another step" towards getting other INC dissidents to safety.

His wife and two children remain in Asia, unable to join him, until he's granted permanent residency and can bring them to Canada.

"Canada proved that ... [it] is a safe haven for a lot of refugees," said Menorca. "There's still hope for justice. There's still hope for people who stand up for what is right."

"I hope this will serve as a message to the church administration."

About the Author

Eric Rankin

Investigative journalist

Eric Rankin is an award-winning CBC reporter. His honours include the 2018 Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reportage, the 2017 and 2015 RTDNA awards for Best In-depth/Investigative Reporting, and the 2009 Jack Webster award for Best News Reporting.