Mindanao, Philippines – An obscure religious movement, believed to be promoting an imminent end-of-the-world ideology, has been accused of engaging in sexual violence and forced marriage of its own members, including children.
The Socorro Bayanihan Services, which was originally a civic organisation, has morphed into a quasi-religious group that is also allegedly involved in extorting money from its members, as well as the drug trade in the town of Socorro, an island in Mindanao.
The organisation, now known as Omega de Salonera, has at least 3,500 members, including 1,580 children. They are reportedly sequestered in a mountain enclave “heavily guarded” by its members, Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a speech in the Senate of the Philippines on Monday night.
“This is a harrowing story of rape, sexual violence, child abuse, forced marriage perpetrated on minors by a cult. This cult is armed and dangerous,” Hontiveros added, citing witness accounts.
In recent weeks, at least eight children managed to escape from the mountain community and provided harrowing first-person testimonies to the authorities in Socorro town.
A 15-year-old with the pseudonym Chloe testified by video that the leader of the group, Jey Rence B Quilario, forced her to get married to a 21-year-old man when she was 13 years old.
Quilario is revered by members of the group and claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus and the world’s new saviour. He is also referred to as The Messiah.
On multiple occasions, Quilario allegedly locked up Chloe in a room with her new spouse and forced her to engage in sex with him.
Quilario also allegedly told the husband “he has the right to rape her” because they were married, Chloe tearfully recalled.
Chloe said she pleaded with her parents to break up her marriage, but they refused saying they had to follow the will of The Messiah.
Hontiveros said sexual crimes are being perpetrated against other children and teenagers living in the mountain community.
“According to direct and firsthand testimonies, Quilario would engage in acts of sexual abuse and violence against minors, including ordering girl children to sleep with him,” the senator alleged.
‘Burning in hell’
A series of earthquakes that hit Surigao del Norte province in early 2019 became the impetus for the leader to lure followers to join the group in the mountains of Socorro and be “saved” from the imminent end of the world, according to Hontiveros’s statement.
Members were then told if they refused to leave their homes, they would end up “burning in hell”.
As a result of the leader’s warning, “a mass exodus” to the mountains took place, with followers surrendering salaries.
“I also received information that the real and more substantial source of funding of this cult is from drugs,” the senator said, adding the real motivation of the group’s leaders is to create a “human shield” to avoid prosecution for drug activities.
On Tuesday, Hontiveros’s office told Al Jazeera it has asked authorities to conduct an investigation.
In a radio interview on Tuesday, Mamerto Galanida, a senior member of the group, denied the “unfair” allegations and said it was ready to face any investigation.
There are several religious groups in the Philippines that are labelled by authorities as “cults”.
In 2002, a confrontation between authorities and followers of another group in the Surigao region of Mindanao turned deadly after they resisted the arrest of their leader, who was suspected of massacring of his own family members.