Philippine sect rallies as Aquino ties appear to sour

Manila, Philippines - About a million members of an influential sect held rallies in the Philippines Tuesday, police said, in a show of force amid perceived political tension with once staunch ally President Benigno Aquino.

Police shut major roads from midday (0400 GMT) and deployed hundreds of officers as the religious group Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) gathered at a Manila seaside park.

National police spokesman Agrimero Cruz said up to 600,000 people joined the rally in the capital, which ended peacefully in early evening.

He said police monitored similar gatherings in two other cities, including one of 400,000 people massed in Tarlac, Aquino's home province, and another of 7,000 at a park in the major central port of Cebu.

The three million-strong sect is one of a handful of religious groups courted by politicians of all stripes during election campaigns, with its massive vote block increasing its political clout.

Local media said Aquino's previously strong ties with the sect have soured since Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona -- who has indirect links to the Iglesia -- was impeached in December, stirring condemnation from the group.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer on Tuesday quoted an unnamed sect insider saying despite the group's public statements to the contrary, the rallies were meant to show its unhappiness with Aquino.

"It seems Malacanang (presidential palace) is not getting the message of the church. This is just another way to show our displeasure," the source said.

Aquino also fired sect member Magtanggol Gatdula as National Bureau of Investigation chief last month after the official was accused of covering up the abduction of a Japanese woman by his aides.

Gatdula appeared on stage with sect leaders at the Manila rally Tuesday, but Iglesia spokesman Bienvenido Santiago insisted the activity was a purely religious gathering.

"This is not for any person but rather for the Glory of God and the salvation of humanity," he told reporters.

Pressed if it was meant to signal the sect's support for Corona, Santiago said: "I suppose we can say that's a mere coincidence."

Aquino also played down the motives of the rallies, saying the conservative sect had assured him they were purely religious events leading up to the 100th anniversary of its founding next year.

"There are others who are saying that there is a political dimension here," Aquino told reporters.

"Their official communication to us is this is part of their religious obligations and part of their faith," he added, stressing that the sect had helped him win the 2010 election.

Aquino said that politicians would normally be welcome to join the rally but he had been advised to stay away to avoid giving "a political tinge" to the event and detracting from its "religious intention".

No overt political comments were made at the rally which came as the Senate was holding a trial on whether Corona's impeachment was valid.

Led by Eduardo Manalo, grandson of its late founder Felix Manalo, the sect exerts huge political influence in Philippines, home to more than 75 million Catholics.

While Aquino can not stand for a second six-year term, the sect's block vote could have on impact on the electoral success of his political allies in next year's midterm Congressional polls.

Iglesia members have been leading rallies backing Corona, who could lose his job if convicted in an ongoing impeachment trial on charges of graft and illegally favouring Aquino rival and predecessor Gloria Arroyo.