However, the Office of the Prime Minister disclosed Cabinet did approve the use of State lands for the church since 2006, but this information suggests this approval was granted after the cornerstone for the church was laid at the site in December 2005.
As criticism mounts over Manning’s silence in response to questions from Opposition Chief Whip Jack Warner about the ownership of the mystery church, the statement from the Office of the Prime Minister lacked details, such as the name of the church, who applied for the use of State lands, where was the application filed and how did the application reach before the Cabinet.
Yesterday’s statement, which did not have an official Office of the Prime Minister letter-head but listed the contact information for its communications officer Paige de Leon, began by noting the questions which Warner raised during last Friday’s sitting of the House of Representatives about the construction of the church. Warner repeatedly asked Manning whether he either owned the church or gave a directive for it to be built.
Manning did not answer Warner’s questions but chose instead to claim that Warner “speaks some truth and then he speaks some untruth.”
“Those of us who subscribe to the tenets of the Bible will tell you that in the book of Genesis there is the tree of good and evil,” Manning observed.
Yesterday, however there were biblical references in the Office of the Prime Minister’s statement which indicated Manning wanted to allay the public’s concerns and declared “the structure is not being built using State funds nor does it belong to the Prime Minister.”
“The church is indeed being constructed on State lands having obtained the requisite approval from the Cabinet since 2006 not unlike other facilities given to numerous and diverse religious bodies throughout Trinidad and Tobago over several administrations,” the statement read.
However, the cornerstone on the church’s construction site states it was put down on December 30, 2005, before permission for the use of State lands was given in 2006. Construction of the church, only began in January of this year and is expected to be completed in July.
The Office of the Prime Minister further said Manning, will “address the matter of Church/State relations in a comprehensive manner in the Parliament in an effort to respond to concerns raised by the public.”
Although the House of Representatives sat yesterday, Manning did not make any statements up until 9 pm.
The Office of the Prime Minister’s statement did not satisfy Warner, who disclosed yesterday he had made nine requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get details about the church. He warned if he did not get any responses within 21 days, he would exercise his option under the Act “to go for judicial review.”
Warner said he took this course of action because “ if the Prime Minister won’t give it, then under the FOIA I will have to get it.”
“This seems to be a situation where everybody is ducking the questions and it just can’t make sense,” Warner said, outside President’s House after he delivered a letter about the Opposition Leader issue to the President, at about 3.30 pm.
Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal, who accompanied Warner to President’s House, also questioned the Cabinet’s role in the award of State land for the church.
“Why would Cabinet need to approve it if it was not a matter involving the Government?”, Moonilal queried.
An hour later, during the tea break in the House, Warner provided reporters with copies of the nine FOIA requests he made to Manning; Planning Minister Dr Emily Gaynor Dick-Forde; Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira; the Secretary to the Cabinet; Director of Surveys/Commissioner of State Lands; Town and Country Planning Division; Environmental Management Authority, Arima Borough Corporation and the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation.
In each FOIA request, Warner asked for copies of approvals for monies allocated for the construction “of a church or facility situated at the Heights of Guanapo via Arima” and known as the “Jesus the Light of the World Ministries”; provide copies of monies allocated to an apostle reverend Juliana Pena; the date upon which such application was made and the date in which such an application was granted.
When questioned by reporters on Tuesday, Dick-Forde defended Manning and said Warner had to prove his claims. It was also reported that State-owned Urban Development Corporation of TT (Udecott) had hired two engineering firms for design works on the project.
Udecott, in response, issued its own statement yesterday and denied it was involved in the construction of the church. “The church which is being constructed at the Heights of Guanapo is not a Udecott project,” the company said, adding “there has never been any contract between Udecott and any party for design engineering and construction works for the project in question.”
Udecott also said it had not received any directive from Government “to build or develop a church, nor has the company been contracted by any party to carry out design or construction on a church in the Heights of Guanapo.”
Shanghai Construction, which was invited to Trinidad, along with other Chinese construction firms, by the Government as part of an arrangement with the government of China, was the main contractor for the Prime Minister’s Official Residence and Diplomatic Centre in St Ann’s and the Northern Academy for the Performing Arts in Port-of-Spain. Udecott was the project manager for both of these projects. Dick-Forde who also defended Shanghai Construction and said it is not a State company and was free to undertake private jobs.
The statement from the Office of the Prime Minister, comes after the surprising disclosure on Tuesday by housewife Zena Lopez who claimed her husband was paid $55,000 to vacate the plot of land on which the church is now being built. Lopez told Newsday her husband was given the money in a shopping bag by an unidentified man who was accompanied by two men whom she believed were plainclothes policemen. Lopez yesterday said the truth will prevail. Lopez said she had seen the story in yesterday’s Newsday and wondered what the response would be.
“The truth will set you free,” was all she would say on the controversial issue.