MANILA (Reuters) - Traffic came to almost a halt at a busy intersection of Manila's main highway on Sunday as thousands of members of a Christian group occupied the road for a third night in a row to protest alleged intrusion by the government in church affairs.
Waving miniature versions of the red, white and green flag of their church, members of the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), or INC, converged on the highway, some walking with umbrellas to protect them from driving rain. Those in parked cars blew their horns in protest.
Shouting "Hustisya" (Justice), INC members, estimated at 14,500 by police, raised placards calling on the government to uphold religious freedom.
An influential group which politicians have courted in the past because its members are known to follow their leaders' advice and vote as a bloc, the INC is facing its biggest crisis after a dismissed minister filed an illegal detention case with the Justice department that could lead to INC leaders' arrest.
Church leaders said the case, resulting from infighting over the use of church funds, was an internal matter and the government should not interfere.
"The current mass action and the mobilization is basically to pressure the government to get off the case," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, adding the government was unlikely to stop the legal process.
Presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said in a text message to reporters the government does not interfere with internal matters of any organization, adding it was duty bound to take up complaints by any citizen or entity.
The case has highlighted cracks within the secretive Christian group - the largest among indigenous Christian groups in the country with about two million members - and could weaken its strong mass base.
"The one on trial here is the Iglesia ni Cristo. They have to show their unity... their strength," Casiple said.
The gathering was the biggest in a four-day protest that started at the Justice department on Thursday and moved on Friday to the EDSA highway, site of several rallies in the past including "people power" revolts that toppled two presidents.
The crowd at the highway cheered as more members from the provinces north and south of Manila joined the protest, which is likely to extend beyond the Sunday deadline set by the local government.
The INC said their members in central and southern Philippines would stage similar protests.
(Reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Manuel Mogato; editing by Clelia Oziel)