Page last updated at 04:26 GMT, Monday, 15 February 2010

Philippine El Shaddai church backs Manuel Villar

By Anne Marie Evans
BBC News, Hong Kong

Candidates for the Philippines presidential election, Manila (8 Feb 2010)
Analysts say the election is likely to be close

A leading presidential candidate in the Philippines, Manuel Villar, has won the informal backing of a powerful Catholic movement in the Philippines.

Mr Villar is closing the gap on the frontrunner Senator Benigno Aquino to be the country's president.

El Shaddai is run by "Brother" Mike Velarde, who was in Hong Kong on Sunday and invited Mr Villar to join him at a huge prayer meeting.

Almost 300,000 Filipinas work in Hong Kong, making up a key voting bloc.

The head of El Shaddai, Mike Velarde, wanted to be a presidential candidate himself but withdrew the idea after opposition from his followers.

Powerful backing

But that is not stopping him from being an influential kingmaker.

Some believe that the Catholic movement El Shaddai is a political power and was instrumental in Fidel Ramos becoming president in 1992. Either way, it has millions of followers in the Philippines.

While Mr Velarde - known to El Shaddai members as Brother Mike - stopped short of giving property tycoon Manuel Villar a formal endorsement on Sunday evening he said he was giving hints to his members.

Mr Villar is currently closing the gap on Senator Benigno Aquino, ahead of the presidential elections on 10 May.

About 1,000 Filipino domestic helpers attended a prayer meeting in central Hong Kong led by Mr Velarde on Sunday evening.

Mr Velarde said it was not up to him to influence voters, but Mr Villar said it was on his invitation that he and his wife and running mate were in Hong Kong, and was quick to claim El Shaddai's backing.

"I don't think they do [a] very formal announcement ... but I think it is obvious. He will never do let's say vote for this guy but I think it is quite obvious. We are happy and I think the message is quite clear to the members," said Mr Villar.

Hong Kong is home to around 270,000 Filipino domestic helpers, which with Mr Velarde's backing could give Mr Villar some ready made votes here.

El Shaddai members could also follow that lead in the Philippines.

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