A loyal servant of the church all his life, 65-year-old Isaias Samson Jr., a second-generation minister of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), found himself and his family captives in their own home on Thursday.
His wife, who just had heart surgery, nearly passed out because of the tension as the couple and their only son were placed "under house arrest" in their townhouse in Tierre Bella, a Quezon City subdivision just behind the INC headquarters where the group housed its ministers.
The family was under the constant watch of armed guards, some carrying high-powered firearms. (Samson did not disclose the names of his wife and son for security reasons).
"It was torture actually. We didn't know what was going on outside, what they planned to do," Samson said.
"INC people have been trained to obey and follow the word of God, and if ever a member of the INC has committed an error or mistake, the immediate thing to do is to repent, change his way of life. But that's not what's happening now, in what I've seen to be the work of the Sanggunian," he said in Filipino, referring to the INC governing body, the elders' council.
Samson surfaced in a hastily called press conference in Manila on Thursday evening and detailed his weeklong ordeal at the hands of certain members of the INC Sanggunian.
He confirmed the reported kidnapping of at least 10 INC ministers in a fast-escalating power struggle within the group, tagging military and police officials (as the culprits) in the ministers' detention.
Samson, suspended last week and removed as editor in chief of the INC's official publication, Pasugo (God's Message), also confirmed unrest within what had been long known as a tight-knit congregation, with many harboring "resentment" toward leaders for questionable financial practices.
His disclosures came just after Cristina "Tenny" Villanueva Manalo, widow of the late INC Executive Minister Eraño Manalo, and son Felix Nathaniel "Angel" Villanueva Manalo posted a video on YouTube pleading for help.
"They took our cell phones, the computer in my office, they took our passports and laptop," Samson said.
His detention began after the Sanggunian accused him of writing damning articles against INC under the name Antonio Ebangelista, whose blog posts about alleged wrongdoings in INC have been making the rounds of social media.
Samson denied any knowledge of the articles.
He said he believed he was also among those "taken," as he had several times expressed his opposition to the decisions of INC's general auditor, Glicerio Santos Jr.
The decrees of Santos and other INC officials, particularly activities involving members' donations, had drawn protests from several ministers, he said.
"They saw the wrongs that were happening, that's why some ministers had resentment [against certain officials]," Samson said.
In INC's outreach programs, for instance, including activities held for the benefit of victims of the 2013 Supertyphoon "Yolanda," Samson said ministers and other workers (those ranked below minister) complained about being charged extra: for shirts in one activity, and for sacks of rice in another.
Asked for a ballpark figure, Samson said "it could" be in the millions of pesos.
On Saturday, the second day of his detention, Samson said certain officials also forced him "to do an interview" and deny allegations that the expelled Manalos had made public.
"They wanted me to say that the statements (of Angel and Tenny Manalo) made were not true and that the abductions of ministers were also not true," he said.
It was not clear if doing so was a ticket to his freedom. But he said he refused because he could not tell lies.
Escape from detention
The family began to think of ways to escape, he said. "But it was hard because I saw ministers and officials around our house until 2:30 a.m.," he said.
With nothing else he could do, he said he and his family turned to prayer, and their prayer was answered.
"As a minister of the Iglesia, I have faith in God. So we told our guards we wanted to go to church," said Samson, who was born into the INC and followed the footsteps of his father, Isaias Sr., as a minister.
His son drove the family out of their townhouse at 5:30 a.m. By some miracle, he said, they noticed that the guards were no longer following them. They decided to drive straight to a safe, undisclosed place.
"If they did that to us, why can't they do it to others? I know what they did was illegal detention," Samson said.
He said he could not serve under officials who peddled lies.
"[They committed] kidnapping, grave threats. These are the reasons why I could not bear the thought that our brethren in the Iglesia could do that. I don't know why they are doing that," he said.
"I love my role as a minister but I cannot serve if those above me are implementing things that are dishonest," he said.
Samson said he knew of at least 10 other ministers being held in different locations: several at the Rosalia Compound on Tandang Sora Avenue, and one minister, Lowell Menorca II, at the city jail in Dasmariñas, Cavite province.
"Perhaps that's one of the questionable things. How these people have this kind of power, that's very dangerous," he said.
He said he could not believe that Tenny and Angel Manalo had been expelled: "Never in my life did I ever think that would happen," he said.
Asked whether there was an organized reform movement within the INC, Samson said he did not know.
"I am a reformist but I am not a member of any group," he said.
He said he was currently taking care of his family's security, but wary of going to authorities for protection.
"You know, in this country, sometimes you want to trust someone, but you can't be sure you can trust him. So we're doing it our own way," Samson said.
He said his faith in the INC remains despite the turmoil.
"INC is not bad. It's just that there are some people who are doing these things," he said.
"I believe there is an end to everything, even evil. There's justice from the Lord. He never sleeps," he added.
Other INC members spoke about alleged mismanagement, corruption and bankruptcy under the leadership of Eduardo Manalo.
An Inquirer source, who was privy to the affairs of the Manalo family, said the infighting among the heirs had been going on since the death of Eraño in 2009.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tenny and the five siblings of Eduardo resented their being "purged" from key positions in businesses ran by INC. Their allies were also removed, the source said.
An INC source said Tenny and Angel tried to mount a "power play."
The source said the siblings accused Eduardo of pushing INC to the brink of bankruptcy with massive projects such as Philippine Arena, the $200-million cost of which was allegedly padded to give commissions and kickbacks to people close to the executive minister.
President Aquino and Manalo inaugurated Philippine Arena on July 21 last year, a week before the INC celebrated its 100th anniversary.
The 55,000-seat Philippine Arena, located in Ciudad de Victoria, a 140-hectare tourism zone in Santa Maria, Bulacan province, was declared the world's largest indoor arena by Guinness World Records.
It was supposed to be the venue of a concert in December last year by R&B star Chris Brown, which fell through because Brown allegedly lost his passport and could not come to the Philippines.
With INC's finances in trouble since the completion of Philippine Arena last year, the source said, Eduardo sold off the group's properties to cover losses caused by his bad business decisions.
The source said the siblings believed Eduardo was receiving "bad advice" from ministers who were out to enrich themselves and remove his mother and siblings from INC's institutional and business operations.
According to the source, senior ministers received information that Eduardo bought a mansion worth P1 billion (S$30.1 m) in an exclusive community in Makati City.
The source said the mother and siblings and their loyal followers were threatened with expulsion from INC if they opposed Eduardo's decisions.
But an INC member who has access to Eduardo's inner circle said ordinary members were unaffected by the family feud.
"For ordinary members, the only person that matters is our leader, Ka Eduardo. Anybody who fights or disrespects our leader will be punished," said the INC source.
The source said Eduardo dealt with the controversy a few days ago, denying accusations of corruption and that INC was fast running out of cash.
The source explained that the sale of properties did not mean INC was going bankrupt but that the group was putting the idle properties to more productive use.
If INC was bankrupt, the source said, how could it afford to build more than 100 chapels all at the same time, with each structure costing at least P20 million?
Another source said the authority of Eduardo was not under question, but the direction of INC was.
"Many members feel that the temporal power of the church is being emphasized too much in contravention of Jesus Christ's teaching that 'My kingdom is not of this world.' This would not have happened if Ka Erdy were alive," said the source, a lay member who is privy to leadership matters in the group.
The source said a number of senior ministers had also noticed how Eduardo and the INC's 12-member elders' council, the group's highest advisory body, were disbursing members' donations for activities not related to religion.
Among those activities, the source said, was the construction of the Philippine Arena.
Citing one of the INC's basic teachings, the source said money donated to the group must be used only to finance church-related infrastructure like "imposing churches" and houses for retired ministers.
"There was strong opposition to the construction of Philippine Arena. They were questioning why the church had to build an edifice that was not devoted to worship," the source said.
Philippine Arena is owned and operated by Maligaya Development Corp. (MDC).
"While MDC is composed of church members, it's still a private corporation whose intention is to earn profits," said the source.