An influential Christian group in the Philippines ended its five-day protest against the prosecution of its leaders Monday, after talks with government officials in the capital Manila. The Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), or INC -- with about 2 million members in provinces forming crucial vote banks -- has a significant influence over government officials as its members generally vote according to their leaders' advice.
The protests, which began Thursday, led to several traffic jams on Friday as hundreds of demonstrators blocked a main highway in the capital. By Monday, the rally had attracted nearly 20,000 people at one of the intersections in Manila. They reportedly dispersed only after a church leader told them that the government had resolved the problems.
However, Evangelist Bienvenido Santiago of INC who called off the protests did not reveal any details.
"The Iglesia and the government have talked and explained their sides," Santiago said, according to the Associated Press, without elaborating, adding: "Everybody is now calm."
"This peaceful gathering that we started on Thursday afternoon will end also peacefully this Monday morning," Santiago added, according to Reuters.
President Benigno Aquino also held an emergency meeting with cabinet members, police and military officials over the demonstrations late Sunday, Reuters reported, citing a tweet by a member of the presidential communications group.
The protests began after the church alleged interference by the government in its affairs over a legal case filed by one of its former members. The INC has witnessed several clashes among its members as some of its leaders have been accused of kidnapping ministers critical of them. The issue was highlighted by an expelled minister who filed a criminal complaint, alleging that several ministers were being secretly detained by INC's leaders. Protests started after Justice Secretary Leila de Lima took steps to investigate the matter.
Members have cited the church's right to religious autonomy under the country’s constitution and accused the government of meddling with its internal affairs.
De Lima has defended herself saying that it was her duty to investigate criminal complaints, the AP reported. Legal experts also said that if de Lima had not acted, it would have constituted a crime.
The church, however, has denied the allegations.
Ramon Casiple, the executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, said, according to Reuters, that the INC was pressuring the government to back off from the case. However, the Filipino government has reiterated that it was not interfering in INC’s internal matters, but only fulfilling its duty of taking up complaints filed by its citizens.