Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Surfeit Of Faiths

Because the Catholic parish church in Lianga is one of its largest, most imposing public structures and just because the majority of the the local folk are Roman Catholics, many visitors to this town often have the wrong impression that it is a one religion town and that other Christian denominations and other religious faiths have no place here. On the contrary, Lianga society is a hodgepodge of religions and nowadays other faiths, Christian or otherwise, have made significant inroads into what its residents would like to think was, just a decade or so ago, fiercely Catholic country.

On the southwestern edge of the town, the visibly grandiose chapel building of the Iglesia Ni Cristo with its trademarked, narrow-pointed spires proclaims this religious organization's presence and growing religious, political influence. The INC has a significant number of followers in the Lianga area and their willingness to parlay and use that influence by voting as a solid block during elections makes them one of those religious institutions whose approval and support can make a difference in the fortunes of local political candidates making a run for public office.

The more mainstream Protestant Christian faiths as well as the so called "born-again" non-denominational Christian groups may not be as showy or militantly evangelical but their adherents constitute a large part of Lianga's non-Catholic population. Baptists, Lutherans, Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and their like are all well represented in Lianga society and many of their members belong to the town's more prominent families. Most of them also have chapels and places of worship within the town proper.

Other Philippine based religions and religious organizations also have some local supporters. Eli Soriano's Members Church of God International, Eddie Villanueva's Jesus is Lord Church and Apollo Quiboloy's The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above Every Name are some notable examples.

Lianga also has its share of the so called "religious cults" although their members might resent such a label. The Divine Arc Victory Instituted in Sion Omnipotent in this Later Days of Christ or DAVISOL Christi foundation which has a self-contained, kibbutz-like community in Barangay Manyayay is the most prominent. Founded by Godofredo Retuerto who is now known as Pater Fred, this settlement is famed locally for its fine woodcraft and furniture making.

If there is one religion that remains under represented, it is the Muslim faith. In the past, there used to be a couple of Muslim families engaged in the local retail trade but nowadays very few have set up shop in Lianga. The municipality of Barobo just 15 kilometers outhwest of Lianga has most of the area's Muslim traders and boasts of a sizable Muslim population.

Surprisingly, in most cases, the relationship between the Catholic population and the other religious groups has always been civil if not totally cordial. Despite the fact that the former is the predominant religion, non-Catholics have always been, to a large extent, allowed the freedom to worship in their own way. Interfaith conflicts in Lianga are exceeding rare because the different religions, by common consent and tradition, try to keep within their own spheres of influence and generally refrain from publicly debating doctrinal conflicts and differences.

Fraternization between the two groups used to be frowned upon in the past but today there is a lot more tolerance and grudging acceptance of diversity. Interfaith marriages remain, however, a ticklish matter though and can be a source of religious and social conflict. Old attitudes and religious prejudices die hard especially in a town like Lianga that remains predominantly Catholic and thus rigidly conservative in matters of religion and social mores.

Perhaps in time there will be more openness and acceptance of the growing religious diversity especially among the Catholic majority. I see that coming with the younger generation but in the meantime, much of the old suspicions and biases of less tolerant times remain.

Most observers do not see any major changes in the religious landscape of this town in the near future. It will most likely remain predominantly Catholic because the general population remains static and composed of large family clans with deep roots in the area. They are intensely protective of the status quo and the decades of the Catholic hegemony.

In truth, it is their conservatism, native stubbornness and sense of insularity that gives Lianga its distinct character and personality. Yes, there is a surfeit of religious faiths in Lianga and many of them are thriving here. But the real heart of this town remains fiercely Catholic and full with the innate arrogance, stubbornness and imperiousness of the believers and defenders of the legacy of the True Faith.

It is this core that gives the town its true character manifests itself through the discomfort and deep suspicion with which it views outsiders and the often unwelcome changes they bring, the sometimes irrational clinging to the familiar comfort of what was instead of welcoming what should be and the strong resistance to move forward even when there is the urgent need to do so.

Those who have the say in Lianga think of themselves as strong and indomitable in the midst of adversity because they are what they are. That may be true in one sense but it is also a sad truth that such a strength is can also be viewed from a different perspective as a weakness, an Achilles' heel of sorts.

Adaptability and the wisdom to accept and adjust to the changing needs of the times are often the keys to survival in the modern world. That is something that Lianga, as the years pass, may have to learn the hard way.


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