LOS ANGELES—Three administrators of the Philippine-based Kingdom of Jesus Christ (KOJC) Christian sect were arrested on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) for participating in an immigration fraud scheme that brought followers to the United States to raise funds for an alleged bogus charity.
Church members were tricked into becoming fundraisers “and then arranged sham marriages and other illegal mechanisms” to keep them in the country, according to a US Department of Justice press statement.
The federal criminal complaint alleged that the church members solicited donations for the nonprofit Children’s Joy Foundation USA, claiming they would benefit impoverished children in the Philippines.
Prosecutors said that instead of going to poor Filipino children, the money raised was used to finance church operations and the lavish lifestyle of church founder and leader Apollo Quiboloy, a self-proclaimed “appointed son of God” who claimed last year that he had ordered an earthquake in Mindanao to “stop” shaking the ground to prevent further destruction.
The church claims a membership of 6 million people and it backed the 2016 candidacy of President Duterte, a close friend of Quiboloy.
Arrested were Guia Cabactulan, Marissa Duenas and Amanda Estopare. Cabactulan, 59, was described as a top church official “who maintained direct communication with KOJC leadership in the Philippines.”
Prosecutors said Duenas, 41, allegedly handled fraudulent immigration documents for the church workers. Cabactulan and Duenas were arrested at a church compound in Van Nuys, where they lived, about 27 kilometers northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Van Nuys is in the San Fernando Valley and home to a large number of Filipino-Americans.
Estopare, 48, who allegedly enforced fundraising quotas for church workers, was arrested in Virginia.
Federal agents raided the church compound in Van Nuys, the Children’s Joy Foundation office in Glendale, and three other locations in the Los Angeles area.
Searches were also conducted at two locations linked to the church in Hawaii, and agents fanned out across the United States to interview witnesses as part of a larger investigation of alleged human trafficking.
Two years ago, a leader of a Hawaii branch of KOJC was arrested smuggling cash onto a private plane in Honolulu bound for the Philippines, according to court records.
Investigators said Felina Salinas declared she was carrying $40,000. But investigators said they discovered $335,000 and $9,000 in Australian currency stuffed in socks in her carry-on suitcase, according to documents filed in US District Court in Honolulu. US law requires travelers to declare currency in excess of $10,000.
A total of 82 sham marriages had been arranged by the church administrators in the past 20 years, according to immigration records summarized in the affidavit.
The affidavit alleged that the church established daily cash solicitation quotas for the church workers and if these quotas were not met, workers suffered abuse, according to victims who have fled KOJC.
“Records show that KOJC accounts received approximately $20 million in cash deposits from 2014 through mid-2019, … [and] most of these funds appear to derive from street-level solicitation,” according to the affidavit, which noted that “little to no money solicited appears to benefit impoverished or in-need children.”
The affidavit summarized the experiences of a series of victims who fled KOJC and provided information to the FBI over the past several years.
Some of them described being sent across the United States to solicit donations, working long hours to reach their daily quotas, receiving little to no pay for their efforts, and participating in sending large sums of cash back to the Philippines on commercial and private flights.
The charge of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Daniel Ahn and Jake Nare of the Santa Ana (California) Branch Office.
In a statement in Davao City where he is based, Quiboloy denied the allegations, which he said had saddened him.
“Under no circumstances does KOJC or its members engage in any act that violates the law,” the statement said.
“We are ready, able to show and prove the innocence of the administrators of the Kingdom,” it said. “We will show to you that the (KOJC) administrators were just exercising the religious rights of spreading the Good News to the whole world. We will face these charges and we await our day in court.”
His lawyer, Israelito Torreon, said the allegations were “nothing but a grand conspiracy of lies, concocted by former members of the Kingdom who struck an alliance with forces who had an axe to grind against Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy.” Torreon did not identify who he was referring to.
“They are into this grand conspiracy in order to put to shame Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ,” he said.
In Manila, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the Philippine government could not question the FBI raid.
“If the raid is legitimate then we cannot complain on that,” he said.
Even if Quiboloy is known for his close ties to the President, Panelo said the church must follow the laws in other countries in the same way the Philippines requires foreigners to obey its laws.
“We have to respect them the way we ask them to respect ours,” he said. –WITH A REPORT FROM GERMELINA LAC