He gave a 53-minute speech on “Church-State relations” in the Lower House to try to soothe a public outcry over claims the Shanghai Construction Group (SCG) is building a private church, the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ, for unknown persons on State lands, although he did not name the church’s owner.
Saying he was free to get spiritual advice from anyone, Manning hit detractors who called one such adviser a “prophetess” or “seer woman” or “obeah woman”, saying, “It is tantamount to the religious persecution of the Prime Minister.”
Manning stole the glory of new Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar on her first day of replacing former leader Basdeo Panday who sat on the backbench. Manning said neither State funds nor influence over Udecott had helped the church, whose head he denied was his travelling companion.
“I want to point out from the very onset that the church is not being built with State funds, that the building constructed does not belong to the Prime Minister, that the church is owned by the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ, that neither the Prime Minister nor any member of the Government gave any instruction to Udecott regarding the construction of the church.”
At each assertion, Government MPs loudly applauded.
He angrily denied the church head accompanies him on all his travels.
“Mr Speaker, the gross inaccuracy of that statement has already been dealt with years ago in the Benny Hinn matter and it need not detain us at this time. Suffice it to say, Mr Speaker, it is grossly inaccurate and I don’t propose to spend any more time on it.”
He said Cabinet has never approved funds for any such travel by the unnamed pastor. “There is no Cabinet decision authorising any payment for the head of the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Christ to travel to any part of the world...No State funds are involved in the foreign travel of the head of that church.” Manning then said the country’s Constitution guarantees each person freedom of worship and of association. “Everybody’s free to pursue the belief system to which he subscribes, and everybody’s free to be advised as he or she sees fit, by whoever he or she wishes.”
Manning said Catholics consult their priests.
Identifying Hindu MPs, he said, “When the member for Siparia or the member for Fyzabad or the member for Oropouche East, consults their pundit or their guru, Mr Speaker, for spiritual advice, nobody says anything is wrong about that.” He said no one complains of Panday visiting India to consult Sai Baba.
“But when the Prime Minister decides that he will seek spiritual counselling from whomever he wishes, the first thing they say is ‘Was it obeah?..Seer woman?...Prophetess?’” He called “prophetess” a disparaging term. “It is tantamount to religious persecution of the Prime Minister. Not only that. The Prime Minister is consulting somebody who is an ordained pastor, Mr Speaker, in the cause of her movement and who’s a born-again Christian.” Government MPs applauded. “It is time, Mr Speaker, that the Full Gospel movement in this country, that born-again Christians in this country, stop accepting the denigration of their faith, and in particular by people who know none of their beliefs or who have no clue of the premises on which your beliefs were (built)...”.
“You get up and say something about Hindus, you make that mistake...You get up and say something about Muslims...,” he said recalling a fatwa given to Salman Rushdie by Muslims. “I’m not advocating that for Trinidad and Tobago, but this persecution of the Full Gospel movement has to come to an end.”
At that Tabaquite MP Ramesh Maharaj lightened the tension by saying aloud, “Amen”.
An angry Manning then gave a one week “deadline” to two news reporters to reveal a supposed “spiritual experience” they had probing the church.
He stormed, “After the interview they had a spiritual experience the likes of which they have never had before. The media will be the first to tell you the public has a right to know. I am calling on those two journalists whom I will not name at this time, nor will I name the media house, to report totally, completely, accurately and faithfully exactly what happened in that experience.
“I know all about it. I am in a position to audit what they say. Mr Speaker, I am giving them one week in which to do it. I’ll tell you this much about it. It put the fear of God in their hearts and I am sure they are re-thinking their position.”
At those words many listeners muttered, “spirit lash”.
Accusing UNC MPs of duplicity, he claimed Panday had once written to ask for the regularisation of Mc Bean Road Extension Mandir which “squatted” on State lands.
Manning said he doesn’t drink or smoke, but had been raised by his mother, who sang in two church choirs, to have strong spiritual beliefs. “I’ll attend any church, that’s my right! I’ll consult whom I wish for spiritual advice.”
Earlier Manning said his Government has given millions of dollars to fund denominational schools, even as his and previous governments had also given away State lands to build religious buildings.
He said the Office of the Prime Minister, in its ecclesiastical grant, had given sums to different denominations including $1,157,000 to the Roman Catholics, $711,000 to the Hindus, $505,000 to the Anglicans and $403,000 to the Muslims.
Manning said the proliferation of religious groups meant it was getting harder to distribute the grant which he said must be re-thought.
Manning read a list of State lands given to religious groups over the years. “It has been the practice of this Government and others preceding it to make lands available for the construction of places of worship.”
He recalled past concerns about how Caroni (1975) Limited had once been distributing State lands in central Trinidad for religious buildings in what he called a “free for all”.
Manning said since 2005 the Government had paid $279 million out of the $363 million cost of eight government-assisted denominational schools.
He then attacked what he saw was bias in how other governments had allocated funds to schools. Manning said there was a “miscellany of interpretations” of the former NAR government’s placement of all nursery schools under the control of Servol headed by Fr Gerry Pantin, at a time when his brother Clive Pantin was Education Minister and his brother Anthony Pantin was the Roman Catholic Archbishop. He said Full Gospel churches had lobbied the State for schools but the movement was too fragmented until 1991 to 1995 when he was able to persuade pastors to form an Association of Independent Ministers. He lamented that the 1995 UNC government had then given $14 million only to Miracle Ministries to build a $20 million secondary school, rather than give to the association. He said the UNC government had also given 25 acres of land to just one Spiritual/Shouter Baptist group headed by a former UNC senator, instead of to the whole denomination overall.
Manning then addressed queries about his visit to the Heights of Guanapo by saying that on the contrary no one had ever questioned his visit to the Hanuman statue in central Trinidad which the State had helped finance to the tune of $2.35 million. Likewise, he said while people query Chinese workers at the Heights of Guanapo, no one argued about craftsmen from India at the Hanuman statue.
Manning said between 2003 and 2009, the Government had funded the social work of religious groups to the tune of $245 million. “I don’t see anybody making a fuss about that,” he said.
He said no one argued when the UNC government gave $10 million for the Hindu group, SWAHA, to build a temple in Diego Martin. He said the many calls at present for State funds for religious groups meant the construction of churches must be done by congregations, not the Government.