By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor
After the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided its church in Los Angeles and arrested three of its senior officials last week, the camp of Pastor Apollo Quiboloy said they were ready to face whatever charges would be filed against them in a US court.
Of the three, two were ordered detained by a US judge. They were identified as Guia Cabactulan and Marissa Duenas. The third, identified as Amanda Estopare, was arrested but later released.
A spokesman for Quiboloy denied they were engaged in human trafficking. The FBI alleges that Quiboloy’s Kingdom of Jesus Christ church was arranging sham marriages between US citizens or legal residents and undocumented church members in order to keep them in the US.
The Federal authorities also allege that church recruits were forced to raise funds and were subjected to various forms of abuse if they failed to hit their quotas. Collections were supposedly for poor Filipino children but a whistleblower said the money was actually used to fund Quiboloy’s lavish lifestyle.
In their defense, Quiboloy’s church said the FBI raid was based on complaints from former members who had been removed due to wrongdoing.
The former church members were fabricating information and were engaged in a “grand conspiracy of lies,” according to lawyer Israelito Torreon.
The FBI raid came after former members said they were forced to work long hours without pay to solicit donations for Children’s Joy Foundation USA. Referred to as “miracle workers,” they were forced to sleep in cars at truck stops.
The complainants also said the church kept their passports, turning them into virtual slaves.
The FBI said that between 2014 and mid-2019, US$20 million was sent back to the Philippines from its US operations.
A report from an FBI special agent said, “Most of these funds appear to derive from street-level solicitation. Little to no money solicited appears to benefit impoverished or in-need children.”
Over a 20-year span, the US operations of the church documented 82 cases of sham marriages involving members.
Besides the new case, Quiboloy was also recently accused of rape by a former member of his church. The accuser said she was still a minor when the alleged multiple rapes occurred.
Quiboloy, who refers to himself as the Son of God and owner of the universe, is a friend and spiritual adviser to President Rodrigo Duterte.
Malacañang distanced itself from the cases involving the Davao-based preacher, who is a US-style televangelist with a TV as well as radio show.
The church claims a membership of six million and has become a potent political force in Davao, not unlike the Iglesia ni Cristo, whose members vote as a block for whoever their church leadership endorses.
During election season, candidates for local and national office seek out Quiboloy in hopes of receiving his blessing.
(Note: In the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, the equivalent of the politicized churches would be the El Shaddai group of Mike Velarde, which also “blesses” certain candidates during prayer meetings but never endorses them outright.)
This is not the first time that the Quiboloy camp has faced legal troubles in the US.
Two years ago, a plane leased by the religious leader was stopped from leaving Honolulu. Authorities arrested another leader of his church when she was found to possess far more than the US$10,000 cap allowed to exit the US. The leased plane was also found to contain parts of firearms which were not declared.
Suspect Felina Salinas was found to have US$335,000 plus another $9,000 in Australian currency. She remains under detention. The US lawyer questioned the different figures given by witnesses, ranging from US$100,000 to US$2 to US$3 million.
Quiboloy was eventually allowed to fly back to the Philippines.
He has since purchased a second private plane besides also possessing a helicopter.