MANILA, February 19, 2004
(STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - President Arroyo quietly slipped into the headquarters of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) in Diliman, Quezon City yesterday to meet with leaders of the influential religious group known for its tradition of bloc voting during elections.

Accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr. and official campaign spokesman Michael Defensor, Mrs. Arroyo, however, failed to meet with INC chieftain, Ka Erdie Manalo.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye immediately doused speculations that the INC visit was part of the President’s strategy to woo the church’s leadership to support her candidacy in the May elections.

In a press briefing later at the Palace, Bunye said Ka Erdie was reportedly ill and has not been reporting to the INC Central Office.

The President was welcomed by Manalo’s son, Eduardo, who is the deputy executive minister of the INC.

Mrs. Arroyo motored to the INC central office in Quezon City at around 8 a.m. yesterday using unmarked vehicles and without the convoy of the Presidential Security Group (PSG). But the appointment was kept secret until after the visit when the INC leaked the details to the media an hour later.

Bunye said Defensor also made an announcement immediately afterwards.

According to her campaign spokesman, Mrs. Arroyo merely "paid a courtesy call" on the INC leadership and took the opportunity to explain the success of her administration’s program to promote the propagation of the high breed "Gloria rice" variety that has doubled or even tripled the production of Filipino farmers who use them.

"According to Defensor, the President was well received by about 1,000 INC members at the compound," Bunye said. "And later she had a sit-down meeting with the INC leaders and they discussed the pet project of Mrs. Arroyo on the propagation of ‘Gloria rice’ among the INC farmers in Bulacan and in Nueva Ecija."

As per account of Defensor on what transpired during the meeting, Bunye said there was no mention of anything about the May 10 elections.

"The meeting was precisely to enlist the support of the INC in the propagation of this very high-yielding ‘Gloria rice’ variety," Bunye emphasized.

"They (INC) are a very organized group and I suppose they have quite a number of people who are engaged in this industry and the President thought this is one group that could lend impetus to the propagation of ‘Gloria rice,’" Bunye explained further.

"She’ll try to reach out to as many sectors as possible, not just the religious sectors," he added.

INC rice farmers, along with other rice farmers in the country, could avail of the government’s subsidized prices of hybrid "Gloria rice" and their palay produce would be bought at much higher farm gate prices by the National Food Authority (NFA).

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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