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Filipino Church Gains Foothold in Valley, Spars With Archdiocese : Religion: Authoritarian Iglesia ni Cristo, which disputes Catholic beliefs, relocates to Panorama City.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An authoritarian, Philippines-based denomination that claims to be the true Christian church has established an impressive foothold in the San Fernando Valley, opening up a new front in its battle with Roman Catholicism for the allegiances of Filipinos around the world.

The first Sunday service will be held today in the $1.3-million, Gothic-style structure built by the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) in Panorama City.

“We have the advantage” over the Catholic Church, said the Rev. Teody Samson, pastor of the 400-member congregation. “The Church of Christ’s experience is that whenever we build a beautiful house of worship, the membership doubles.”

However, the director of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese’s Filipino Pastoral Ministry maintained that 85% of Filipinos are Catholic and that the Iglesia ni Cristo is regarded by Catholics here and abroad as a “fundamentalist sect.”

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Father Loreto Gonzales, director of the Filipino ministry, said that Christian fundamentalism of various kinds “has made inroads into the Catholic community.” But since beginning operations two years ago, the ministry’s office has been “right on target” with its goals of encouraging parish programs of special interest to Filipino-Americans and immigrants.

None of those programs, however, are in the Valley, where Filipinos are the fastest-growing Asian group. The nearest notable archdiocese programs aimed at Filipinos are in Eagle Rock and Glendale.

According to 1990 U.S. census figures, the number of Filipinos in the Valley tripled to 26,927 during the 1980s. Moreover, the areas with the highest concentration of Filipinos are Panorama City and Arleta, where they represent between 10% and 16% of the population.

Yet, it was only a coincidence that the new church is located on Nordhoff Street in the heart of the growing Filipino community.

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“We found a lot available here,” Samson said. “Most of our brethren live in North Hollywood, and we still call this church the North Hollywood congregation.”

The Valley congregation of the Iglesia ni Cristo was started with 125 members in 1986 by the Los Angeles church of the denomination. Samson arrived as the first resident minister the next year. The new church building, dedicated in ceremonies on May 23, is debt-free--the land and construction was paid for in cash by the church’s headquarters in the Philippines, he said.

The denomination, which established its U.S. headquarters in San Francisco in 1968, already has 30 congregations in California, including one in Lancaster that meets in a converted house.

The Iglesia ni Cristo was founded in 1914 by Felix Y. Manalo, who members believe was a biblically prophesied “messenger of God” sent to teach true Christianity to the world in its “last days” before divine judgment. His son and successor, Erano G. Manalo, now leads the church and its estimated 1.4 million members in the Philippines and branches in about 50 countries.

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Members are taught to be unswervingly loyal to the teachings of the church.

“How may we be able to fulfill our obligation of giving respect to the duly commissioned Church leaders?” asks an article in the quarterly magazine published by the church’s San Francisco headquarters.

“By submitting unto all the teachings and regulations within the Church,” the article continues.

“One of our doctrines is unity--we are united in all aspects,” Samson said.

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That unity extends to “voting as one” for major political candidates, the pastor said. In the recent presidential election in the Philippines, in which results are still being tabulated, the Iglesia ni Cristo backed businessman Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., a close political ally and business associate of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.

“One of our most controversial teachings is that we don’t believe that Christ is God; Christ is his son,” Samson said. Christian doctrine says that God is a unity of three persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “But we can’t find the Trinity in the Bible,” Samson said.

Men and women sit in separate pews during the denomination’s services. The pastor said that the biblical verse justifying that practice is the Apostle Paul’s admonition that everything done in church must be done in order. When it was noted in an interview that that verse does not refer to segregated seating, Samson reverted to his church’s doctrine for an answer. “The church administration was given by God for authority over all things in the church.”

The Iglesia ni Cristo broadly criticizes the Christian tradition of observing Dec. 25 as Jesus’ birthday and does not join in Christmas celebrations. No birth date is given in the Bible, and Christendom eventually settled on that date, historians say, as a church-created holiday to rival the Roman pagan celebrations.

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The denomination is most critical of Catholic beliefs and practices--from the belief in papal infallibility and priestly celibacy to confession.

Suggesting that Catholics practice idolatry in directing their prayers to God through saints and celebrating feasts in their honor, one writer in the denomination’s magazine said that “oftentimes such feasts are characterized by shameless licentiousness and held with all the aplomb that characterized ancient pagan festivals.”

In contending with the Iglesia ni Cristo, the archdiocese’s Gonzales said that the Catholic Church will continue to be successful in attracting Filipinos because of its greater resources to cater to their physical, cultural and spiritual needs.

Several Catholic parishes around Los Angeles have introduced pre-holiday observances enjoyed by Filipinos, including evening Masses for nine consecutive nights before Christmas. The ministry office also plans to introduce in the Valley a series of Filipino-oriented cursillos --spiritual renewal groups that organize after four-day retreats.

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Gonzales accused the Iglesia ni Cristo of using “an element of fear and the threat of condemnation by God if someone doesn’t join their church.”

Samson responded: “It is not the ministers who are condemning. It is God who is judging the person.”

Despite their differences, Gonzales held out an olive branch. “I hope we can work together with Iglesia ni Cristo,” the priest said, “and simply dialogue to build up our community.”

By contrast, Samson said that he hopes there will be more doctrinal debates between the two churches.

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“We don’t want to offend other churches, but I hope more people will find out the truth” about Iglesia ni Cristo’s version of Christianity, he said.


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