Iglesia Filipina Independiente, Celebrating 110 Years of Faithful Witness and Service

It is rare to find an institution today that can say it was born out of the fires of revolution, much less a religious organization. However, that’s exactly what the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) is – a Church formed at a time when religious and social unrest plagued the country. Its formation gave support to the deprived and oppressed and continues to this day in that same spirit, for God and country.

Founded in 1902, the IFI, in the words of the late historian Teodoro Agoncillo, is “the only living tangible result of the 1896 revolution.” During the Spanish and American regimes, it was a dark time for Filipinos. Injustice was plentiful as the Filipinos were denied of their freedom and rights in their own country. Running up to its foundation, the movement that would give birth to the IFI was part of a broad nationalist struggle against Spanish colonialism and American imperialism.

Fr. Gregorio Aglipay played an important role in the revolution to overthrow the Spanish colonizers and to work for the Filipinization of the Church. As early as 1898 the then military Vicar of the revolutionary government had gathered Filipino priests to a special meeting to lay down the organizational foundation of the Filipino Church. After Spanish rule and the entry of the Americans, Fr. Aglipay became the first Obispo Maximo (Supreme Bishop) of the IFI, formed right after a public protest spearheaded by the Union Obrera Democratica (UOD), the first labor confederation in the country formed and headed by Don Isabelo de los Reyes, which had publicly proclaimed the IFI on August 3, 1902.

Today celebrating 110 years, the 12th Obispo Maximo, the Most Reverend Ephraim S. Fajutagana, continues the spirit for which the IFI was founded upon. He says, “When the IFI was founded in 1902, it wasn’t for the sake of separating from the Roman Catholic Church. It was the product of the aspirations of the Filipino people for political independence and religious freedom.” As mentioned, political independence was highly important to a people that were treated like slaves in their own country. Bishop Fajutagana adds, “So, because oppression and abuse were rampant in politics, the economy and society, that’s when the fire of revolution rose from us Filipinos.” When it came to religious freedom, Filipinos only wished to worship God in their own way – the very same God that the colonial church also worshipped.

To put the history in context, Bishop Fajutagana continues that the Filipino clergy at the time were trained at Roman Catholic seminaries. Despite that opportunity to study and be fully-trained as priests they were still discriminated in the Roman Church. “They were advancing in their studies but in terms of their capacity to serve as parish priests, they were set aside because of their ethnicity,” he shared. “No matter what, we were still called ‘indio’ at the time.

Since its beginning, the IFI was always known for its nationalist, pro-people, pro-workers, and democratic principles. Unfortunately because of this, the IFI has become known by the Armed Forces of the Philippines as an “enemy of the state” for simply supporting many people’s movements. Its bishops, priests and lay leaders and church workers are continually harassed, placed under surveillance and threatened for supporting the issues on behalf of the marginalized sector. The IFI, as Bishop Fajutagana clarifies, is itself marginalized.

Bishop Fajutagana explains further that the IFI has a strong prophetic tradition. This means the IFI, in its nascent stage, took a stand on issues that dehumanized and distorted the very image of God that was given to us Filipinos. These are the abuses and oppression happening in our own motherland. Bishop Fajutagana asserts, “Even today, IFI’s prophetic voice remains strong which is something that the government does not seem to understand. It thinks that the IFI is just speaking out on issues. When, in fact, we are not anti-government because we are only encouraging and reminding the government in respecting the rights of the people.”

The IFI carries with it a proud history of participation in issues such as the removal of the US bases, speaking out against former Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and the release of political detainees. Other issues such as human rights, mining, environmental degradation, corruption, political killings are some of the major issues the IFI has contributed its voice of protest to.

Bishop Fajutagana makes it clear that the IFI will always respect the separation of church and state. “We can only be the conscience of the state but never have a hand in decision-making. And we don’t endorse any candidates or political parties,” he avers.

A Roman priest once said that the IFI, due to its nature as just being borne out of a singular driving force or need in society, was dead even before it would form. On the contrary, instead of quickly disappearing, the IFI flourished for 110 years. “The true spirit of nationalism – of being a church called by God to respond to the aspirations of the Filipino people – will continue to flourish. That’s why the IFI continues to this day,” beamed Bishop Fajutagana.

The Supreme Bishop’s wish on this the historic 110th anniversary of the IFI. “My hope for the IFI is for it to continue as a Church that can truly help unite a nation, together with government and the people, to contribute in uplifting the lives and conditions of the people, and to continuously become God’s instrument in building justice and peace in the country and the world.”

As an official torch bearer for 1896’s revolutionary flame, the IFI continues with its mandate of celebrating its historical heritage of serving God and country, and upholding society’s oppressed and marginalized. It is a fire that is most welcome in the darkest days of our nation.