INC members have right to defend beliefs, says Poe

Ryan Chua, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 28 2015 03:48 PM | Updated as of Aug 29 2015 09:27 AM

SAN JOSE, Nueva Ecija - Senator Grace Poe said members of the influential religious group Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) have a right to defend their religion and beliefs, which the government must respect.

Poe also believes the Department of Justice (DOJ), which is handling charges of illegal detention against some INC leaders, should focus on other important cases, such as the deaths of 44 elite cops in encounter with rebels last January.

Thousands of INC members assembled in front of the DOJ building on Thursday, protesting the agency's investigation of a supposedly internal matter. The crowd even blocked a vehicle they believed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was riding.

"Huwag nating mamaliitin ang importansya ng relihiyon (We should not belittle the importance of religion)," Poe told reporters on Friday.

"Para sa akin, ang mga tao na yan, ang dinedepensahan nila ay ang kanilang paniniwala. Nirerespeto natin 'yan at kailangan ay pangalagaan din ang kanilang mga karapatan (For me, those people are defending their beliefs. We respect that and we should also protect their rights)."

Poe's stand on the issue echoed that of her close friend and possible running mate in the 2016 elections, Senator Francis Escudero.

In a statement on Thursday, Escudero said De Lima should complete the DOJ's investigation on the January 25 encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao instead of focusing on the INC case.

Escudero also said the DOJ's handling of the case could be misinterpreted as a violation of the right to religious freedom.

"It may be prudent to first let the leadership of the INC resolve what appears to be a purely internal matter," he said.

Poe also said the DOJ should give attention to other cases, such as the Mamasapano incident.

"Maraming inaasikaso ang DOJ (The DOJ has a lot on its plate)," she said.

"Magtataka ka rin, bakit ang tutok doon, samantalang halimbawa ang ibang mga kaso ng gobyerno wala naman silang mga witnesses pa na naka-hold (You would wonder why the focus is there while for other government cases they have not held witnesses yet)," Poe added, referring to the INC case.

Poe added that De Lima should explain the merits of the INC case to the public, and why the DOJ was handling it.

"Siguro mas makakabuti...ay humarap siya sa mga tao na nagra-rally 'pag mahinahon, at i-eksplika kung ano ba ang sitwasyon, bakit nangyari na gano'n (Maybe it would be better for her to face the protesters when they are calm, and explain the situation and why it happened that way)," she said.

Poe and Escudero, who are both considering running for higher office in 2016, are among the first politicians to have spoken up on the controversy hounding the INC.

Because of its leadership's widely believed power to rally its members to vote as a bloc, and with millions of members all over the world, many politicians would seek the INC's endorsement every election.

With its ever-growing clout, the INC is also believed to have influence over government policy and the appointment of officials.

A recent controversy involving allegations of corruption and the kidnapping of members who are critical of the INC's leadership, however, has shaken the foundations of what has always appeared to be a