Influential Christian church ends protests by thousands of followers in Philippines

Manila, Philippines – Thousands of members of a politically influential Christian sect on Monday ended five days of street protests that set off huge traffic jams in the Philippine capital and sparked outrage from motorists.

Evangelist Bienvenido Santiago of the Iglesia ni Cristo church said without elaborating that his group had ended their protests peacefully in Manila after holding talks with government officials.

"The Iglesia and the government have talked and explained their sides," Santiago said. "Everybody is now calm."

The Iglesia group began protesting after Justice Secretary Leila de Lima took steps to investigate a criminal complaint filed by an expelled Iglesia minister against church officials, citing the church's right to be accorded religious autonomy under the constitution.

De Lima said it was her duty to investigate criminal complaints and legal experts added that failure for her to do so would constitute a crime.

Thousands of sect members rallied at de Lima's Manila office on Thursday and then shifted their protests to the main EDSA highway, site of two "People Power" uprisings that have toppled two presidents in nearly three decades. The crowd at one major intersection swelled to more than 20,000 at one point, according to police.

The large gatherings worsened traffic jams in a bustling district of shopping malls, and office and residential high-rises. Commuters vented their ire on social media, prompting a protest spokesman to apologize.

The 101-year-old religious group wields political clout because its large numbers of followers vote as a bloc in national elections. Politicians have courted its vote, and administration and opposition candidates eyeing next year's presidential elections issued carefully crafted statements on the protests.

The secretive church has been wracked by infighting, with some of its ranking leaders facing and denying allegations of abducting ministers critical of the leaders and of misusing funds. After the internal strife became public, a minister filed a complaint for illegal detention against several sect leaders, an allegation the church called as a lie but which de Lima said had to be investigated.