MANILA, Philippines --- The modest chapel in Watawat Compound, Barangay Lecheria, Calamba, Laguna, looked like a typical Catholic place of worship.
Inside, the congregation chanted prayers. A choir sang religious hymns. Three priests concelebrated the mass.
At the altar is a statue of the Risen Christ.
The first clue that this chapel is different is the bust of the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, occupying a prominent place in the altar.
The homily accentuated the anomaly. Parish Priest Vicario Eusebio Bolante dwelt on the importance of believing in Rizal, who he said sacrificed his life save mankind.
The faithful gathered at the chapel belong to the Iglesia ng Watawat ng Lahi, one of the many sects that worship the national hero as God.
To Rizalistas, Rizal is the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. They believe the man who was executed by a firing squad in Bagumbayan (now Rizal Park) in 1896 was but a spiritual transfiguration.
As proof, Rizalistas say that when Rizal's body was exhumed in Paco Park, only a pair of shoes and a tree trunk were found.
They believe Rizal is still alive and lives deep in the forest of Mount Makiling.
In his homily, Bolante retold the story of the baby Rizal being found by Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonzo, who by documented historical accounts were the hero's real parents.
The couple named the child Jove Rex Al. At the child's baptism, the officiating Catholic priest is said to have turned down the name, saying it is too close to the name of the Lord. So as not to thwart the christening, the couple renamed the child Jose Rizal.
Established in December 25, 1936, the Rizalista sect had for its first Supreme Bishop, Rev. Fr. Luis Fabrigar, and as its first president, Jose Valincunoza.
The story goes that the group's early preachers were the banal na tinig. The preachers were said to be able to communicate with the Rizal who lived in Makiling.
The Rizalistas combine religion and patriotism. The mix attracted such prominent personalities like the educator Rafael Palma and the nationalist politician Claro M. Recto.
During their rituals, the members wear dresses with the colors of the Philippine flag.
As the sect gained more followers, it established 100 chapters nationwide, with its headquarters in Calamba, Rizal's home town.
The number of Rizalista converts peaked in the 1980s, when it reached about 100,000. Today the membership has been reduced by more than 90 percent.
Iglesia ng Watawat ng Lahi, which is considered as the original Rizalista group, is headed by 51-year-old Bonifacio Relleta. A graduate of civil engineering, Relleta lives with his four children; his wife, a pious Catholic, is in Canada.
To be able to spread the gospel of the Watawat ng Lahi, its priests have to study in an institution, which is somewhere in Bicol.
The sect allows its priests to marry, provided they serve for five years in their community. Officials of the sect are not paid and rely on donations from well-off members.
Today, the birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, is one of holiest dates in the Watawat ng Lahi calendar, together with his death anniversary on December 30.
On those days, the sect celebrates the "Misa de Tres", after which the followers take part in a grand parade and offer flowers, flags and other small treats.
Unlike the Christian tradition of celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25, Rizalistas observe Christmas on Oct. 3, which they consider as the true date of birth of Jesus Christ.
They also mark Gomburza Day every Feb. 17, Bonifacio Day on Nov. 30, as well as other national holidays.
Aside from the Bible, they also have the "Sugong Kayumanggi", which they consider as their second most important tome. But some elders point to Rizal's famous novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, as their counterparts of the Bible.
If the Catholic Church has the Ten Commandments, Rizalistas has three simple rules: love God, people and society. Recently, they added love for the environment as one of their new doctrines.
The split among the Rizalistas stems from political and doctrinal differences, noted 73-year-old Enrico Naculangga. A particularly thorny issue is whether Rizal is God or just a spiritual guide.
Aside from the Iglesia Watawat ng Lahi, there is the Lipi ni Rizal; Pilipinas Watawat; Iglesia Sagrada Familia; and the Molo.
But through all the challenges, Relleta's faith remains strong and that Rizal continues to keep watch on his flock.
He recalled that early this year he was about to resign as president of the sect because their chapel was facing foreclosure by the bank. He said an old man appeared to him and criticized him for his lack of faith.
Finding new strength, Relleta went to the bank to settle the sect's debts. He said he found the same old man waiting for him there, ready to help him with the transactions.