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Spatial assertions and the Iglesia ni Cristo’s quest for power

I was one of those caught unawares by the unexpected demonstration of members of the Iglesia ni Cristo [denomination? sect? cult?] along EDSA. Head spinning and near collapse after 24 hours of interminable meetings, I resented this needless intrusion on what is already a heavily contested space. What fatuousness made these folks picket an otherwise customary judicial process that has nothing to do with religious doctrine or church affairs and construct it as an infringement of the state on their “church”? Further, what hidden motives do they have in making their presence felt in an area that has nothing to do with either their cause or the person they are criticizing?   

I am talking about the move to converge along that stretch of the Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (EDSA) around the Catholic shrine, which was established to commemorate the peaceful revolution in 1986 that overthrew a government seen by a majority, and not simply by the dominant groups in society, as fraudulent, corrupt, and everything in between. That mobilization was 20 years in the making. That area of EDSA therefore, holds a particular meaning for many Filipinos, regardless of social class, religion, and ethnolinguistic affiliation.

The decision of INC members to occupy it reeks of the desire to impose their group’s meanings on the landscape, perhaps out of a sense of religious marginalization in a country where much of the population remains Catholic (whether they practice or not is a different story) and where many still see the INC as a sect, a cult even. However, this occasion also confirms the ability of the dominant groups in Philippine society to construct the landscape, uphold its intended definitions, and reproduce their own values and ideologies.  

Landscapes, as products of human interaction with the physical environment, are replete with meanings. These can be official – those that arise from the intended functions of the landscape or those that have been assigned by powerful groups or by the majority; and these can also be popular – the fluid, often contested interpretations of the masses.  Beyond such meanings, objects in the landscape also serve to allow for the remembrance of certain selected historical events. For instance, the statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, that fronts EDSA shrine, reminds passersby, church-goers, commuters, motorists, of the revolution that, while not exactly bringing about the anticipated social change, led to the crossing of class, ethnic, and religious lines to rid the country of a dictator. It also harks to the involvement of the Catholic church in advancing the cause.       

While we can say that the EDSA revolution per se was also an imposition on the landscape – a mass uprising that violated the constitution, it was a national event. And the particular space appropriated by INC members is one that has been intentionally and officially carved out to memorialize its significance. As the space includes both a Catholic church and the statue of Mary, use of the space by other religious groups becomes first, a deliberate proclamation of the notion that their religion deserves to be mainstreamed.

Surely, the towering gothic revival churches scattered across the country are examples of how the INC is trying to make its presence felt in the built environment of what is known as a largely Catholic society. But apparently, many of its members still feel the need to be visible and recognized. In this instance, not only are they using physical structures to define their group identity, but combative means to resist marginalization and to showcase an assumed power are also manipulated, such as contesting valid state decisions, claiming national symbols, and flaunting the bloc vote to scare politicians.

Despite the seeming success of their spatial appropriations – they have been granted permits to rally until god-knows-when, the dominant interpretations of space will still prevail, even though it might not be apparent now. As the landscape of EDSA embodies an accepted historic juncture in Philippine society, those responsible for its construction and maintenance – in this case, the majority – are bound to protect its meaning.

Shortly after INC members staged their protest, people have started ganging up on them in various media, and it is making the group defensive of their activities. Memes have sprouted poking fun at the group’s rationale for using that specific area of EDSA (eg. “The Department of Justice is in Taft; Malacanang is in Mendiola; who are you opposing in EDSA, Mama Mary?”). Officials have asked the protesters to transfer from their original demonstration space to an alternative one, albeit in the same location. The fact that popular meanings of EDSA revolve around the horrible traffic situation does not help the group in any way.   

As the drama unfolds (there have been reports of INC members resorting to violence against tricycle drivers who refuse to support them), the way that many Filipinos, regardless of religion, class, and ethnolinguistic affiliation, perceive the group’s activities as an insufferable stunt indicates that the appropriated landscape of EDSA still retains its official definitions, and that it is still capable of reproducing the values that supported its construction. EDSA is a site that articulates and represents collective memories; it would be difficult for any one group to contest these unless that group either has the support of Filipinos in general or is powerful enough to overthrow accepted meanings. Perhaps the reception to INC would have been different had they chosen another area, say, their own stadium? Or maybe not.

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