MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine religious group on Thursday denied allegations by American law enforcement agents that it was involved in a scheme to trick followers into becoming fundraisers and arrange sham marriages to keep them in the U.S.
FBI agents raided the Kingdom of Jesus Christ church in Los Angeles on Wednesday in a human trafficking investigation that led to the arrests of three church leaders.
A spokesman for Apollo Quiboloy, the church founder and leader, said former members who had been disciplined for wrongdoing retaliated by breaking off from his church and fabricating information they fed to the FBI in a “grand conspiracy of lies.”
“Their aim, therefore, is to exact revenge, extortion commingled with a brazen but shameless desire to put (Quiboloy) and the (church) as a whole into a quagmire of shame, blatant humiliation and defeat through trumped-up charges,” lawyer Israelito Torreon said in a statement issued to reporters in southern Philippines’ Davao city.
The church leader ordered an internal audit last year that prompted a trusted officer and other members to leave the group and struck an alliance with “forces” jealous of Quiboloy’s rise, Torreon said without elaborating.
“We will face and disprove as utter lies the charges filed against the administrators” of the church in the U.S., he said.
Workers who managed to escape from the church told the FBI they had been sent across the U.S. soliciting donations for the church’s charity and were beaten and psychologically abused if they didn’t make quotas, according to an affidavit filed in support of the charges.
The immigrants essentially became full-time workers, sometimes referred to as “miracle workers,” in a crusade to raise money for the nonprofit Children’s Joy Foundation USA, which was supposed to benefit poor children in their homeland. But the complaint said most of the money raised was used to finance church operations and the lavish lifestyle of Quiboloy.
The church claims a membership of at least 6 million people and backed the 2016 candidacy of President Rodrigo Duterte, a close friend of Quiboloy. Duterte appeared in the group’s radio and TV program in Davao when he was mayor of the southern port city.
Quiboloy claims to be “the appointed son of God” and last year claimed he stopped a major earthquake from hitting the southern Philippines.
The Los Angeles leader of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ church was arrested on immigration fraud charges along with a worker who seized victims’ passports and another who handled finances, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Between 2014 and the middle of last year, $20 million was sent back to the church in the Philippines, the FBI said.
“Most of these funds appear to derive from street-level solicitation,” according to the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Anne Wetzel. “Little to no money solicited appears to benefit impoverished or in-need children.”
Guia Cabactulan, 59, the top church official in the U.S., was arrested in Van Nuys with Marissa Duenas, 41, who allegedly handled fraudulent immigration documents, prosecutors said. Amanda Estopare, 48, who allegedly enforced fundraising quotas, was arrested in Virginia.
Cabactulan and Duenas are expected to make initial court appearances Thursday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. Estopare was ordered held after a hearing in Norfolk, Virginia, and expected back in court Monday.
Investigators documented 82 sham marriages over 20 years between top fundraisers and church members who were U.S. citizens.
Torreon said church members “give their offerings voluntarily out of their faith and understanding of the biblical teaching concerning religious offerings, as well as their desire to raise money for specific projects, endeavors and ministry of the kingdom.”
In addition to raiding the church’s Van Nuys compound, agents were searching other Los Angeles-area locations and at two places in Hawaii linked to the church.
Two years ago, a leader of a Hawaii branch of the church was arrested smuggling cash onto a private plane in Honolulu bound for the Philippines with Quiboloy on board, according to court records.
Associated Press journalist Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.