Philippine church Iglesia ni Cristo set to draw million followers to mark centenary
A Philippine Christian church known for its discipline, money and political power is marking its 100th anniversary today, with more than one million followers expected to join the celebrations.
Members of the Iglesia ni Cristo, or Church of Christ, were set to congregate at a giant complex especially built for the occasion near Manila, in an event to showcase the religion's stunning success at home and abroad.
"The pace of the spread of Iglesia ... has exploded," church spokesman Edwil Zabala said during a tour of the "City of Victory" complex, which includes a 55,000-seat indoor stadium, to promote the centenary.
About 80 per cent of the nation's 100 million people are Catholic, but there is also a plethora of home-grown Christian movements, the highest-profile and strongest being Iglesia ni Cristo.
The church was established in 1914 in Manila by Felix Manalo, a charismatic man who was raised a Catholic, became a Protestant preacher, then founded his own religion in which he proclaimed himself the last messenger of God. Today its unique cathedrals topped by soaring spires can be seen in most cities and villages across the Philippines, while its missionary work has created congregations in more than 100 other countries.
Iglesia ni Cristo is at odds with the Catholic Church on many fundamental issues of doctrine, and numerous outsiders perceive it as a much more conservative brand of Christianity.
Men and women must be separated in church for services, and they are only allowed to date or marry fellow Iglesia ni Cristo members. Once married, they can never separate.
Christmas and many Catholic fiestas that are hugely popular in the Philippines are not celebrated by Iglesia ni Cristo members.
The church also has a reputation for carrying out much more intense missionary work than the Catholic Church.
Iglesia ni Cristo typically creates big headlines in the Philippines when it flexes its considerable financial and political muscle. Its political strength is built upon a ruling that all members must vote in national elections according to the verdict of the church's leader.
Iglesia ni Cristo refuses to disclose how many members it has, although local media estimate it to be well above two million, which gives it a powerful bloc vote that ensures politicians pay them close attention.