MANILA, Philippines - A politically influential and secretive Christian church that's involved in a legal dispute with American R&B singer Chris Brown has been caught in a rising tide of its own legal troubles.
The Philippine government on Friday opened an investigation into allegations that the advisory Council of Iglesia ni Cristo, or Church of Christ, was responsible for abducting ministers critical of some church leaders and misusing funds. The announcement by the Justice Department caps months of swirling rumors about corruption and internal feuds in the church, which has been controlled by the Manalo family for two generations.
Brown gave a concert in Manila this week but was delayed from leaving because of a fraud complaint filed by a corporation run by the church. It claims it had paid Brown and a promoter $1 million in advance for a New Year's Eve concert at its 55,000-seat arena outside Manila, which he canceled without paying the money back. He left Manila late Friday after obtaining clearance.
The church's potential troubles with the law are apparently unrelated to its tiff with Brown, but could be far more damaging to its reputation by exposing the depth of internal squabbles in the 101-year-old movement. It is also likely to unmask the strong grip the church has on its 2.3 million members.
The feud within the close-knit church became public this week when the mother and a brother of the group's head, Eduardo Manalo, were expelled after they sought help from other members in a YouTube message, saying they were in danger and that several ministers had gone missing.
The brother, Felix Nathaniel Manalo, spoke out on Thursday against what he said were various anomalies in the church's operations, saying funds "are being used up in all sorts of projects which we don't even need."
One of the projects, he said, was the Philippine Arena, claimed to be the world's biggest indoor stadium where Brown was to have performed last New Year's Eve and where the 100th anniversary of the movement was celebrated last year. The centennial celebrations will end on Sunday.
"We have been threatened by the Council ... because they say we are opposing the leader," he said. "We love our brother, but the problem is those around him."
Another mysterious expense by the church, which was not mentioned by Felix Nathaniel, was its purchase of the U.S. ghost town of Scenic, South Dakota, for less than $800,000, the same year that construction of the arena began. The church has not disclosed its plan for the abandoned town.
Separately, Isaias Samson, a minister and former editor-in-chief of the Iglesia newspaper, told reporters that he, his wife and son were held under "house arrest" by armed guards allegedly on orders of the church Council for a week before they escaped early Thursday.
"It is very difficult to talk about things that we know will damage the Iglesia because of the actions of some people," he said, adding that about 10 ministers have been abducted.
With the controversy building up, the Justice Department announced it has opened an investigation into the church.
The government cannot intervene in Iglesia's squabbles but abductions are crimes that the National Bureau of Investigation will probe, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told reporters.
The church believes that Jesus is the son of God, but it does not believe in the Holy Trinity as do Roman Catholics - the predominant religion in the Southeast Asian nation. Still, the church commands political influence because its members vote as a bloc in national elections, making them highly sought after by politicians, especially presidential aspirants.
The movement's founder, Felix Manalo, broke away from the Catholic Church and is regarded by his followers as a prophet. He died in 1963, and was succeeded by his son, Erano Manalo, until his de ath in 2009, when another Manalo son took over as "executive minister."
Bienvenido Santiago, Iglesia's General Evangelist, on Thursday denied allegations of abductions and said the church is "not a family corporation."
Brown, the Grammy award-winning singer, has found himself caught in the fringes of the imbroglio. On Friday, he defended himself on Twitter, saying "I have done nothing wrong."
"This is a very serious situation and someone needs to be held accountable for mixing up name in all this," he tweeted, referring to the fraud complaint against him. That message and others in which he defended himself on social media were later deleted.
The fraud complaint required Brown to obtain an emigration clearance to leave the country. He obtained it late Friday, Immigration Bureau spokeswoman Elaine Tan said.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Brown's presence at a preliminary investigation into the fraud complaint can be waived. Charges will be filed in court if prosecutors find probable cause to charge him and his promoter.