In Mexico, the Cardinal and the 'Crazies'

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 28, 2006

MEXICO CITY -- It was an intrusion onto sacred ground.

At the height of Catholic Mass in the baroque Metropolitan Cathedral, a man interrupted the service by brandishing a political protest sign at the country's most respected religious figure. Outside, demonstrators chanted, "Norberto Rivera, hell awaits you."

Rivera, a cardinal, oversees the world's largest archdiocese here in Mexico City, the center of religious life in a country where nine in 10 people are Catholic. He had been considered a leading contender to succeed Pope John Paul II after the pontiff's death last year.

But Rivera is now immersed in a nasty political tussle that illuminates the hair-trigger sensitivity here about mixing religion and politics.

On one side, supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist presidential candidate who is challenging the results of the July 2 election, accuse Rivera of siding with the apparent winner, Felipe Calderón. On the other side, Rivera calls protesters who have disrupted Mass at the cathedral "crazies," and other Catholic leaders condemn López Obrador supporters for placing the image of Mexico's most revered saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on political posters.

"The mix of religion and politics is always explosive in Mexico," said historian Enrique Krauze, who has dubbed López Obrador a "tropical messiah" because, Krauze says, he tries to use religion to further his political appeal.

Rivera has shown no reluctance to blend the spiritual and the secular, either. Last month, he said the church could mediate the post-electoral crisis.

Two weeks later, he called on Mexican Catholics to respect a decision by a special elections court rejecting López Obrador's request for a full recount and ordering a recount of only 9 percent of polling places. Rivera's statement echoed the position of Calderón, who supported the court's decision, and countered the stance of López Obrador, who lambasted the ruling and continued to demand a full recount. The court is expected to issue a ruling Monday on the electoral challenges.

López Obrador's supporters were outraged by the cardinal's comments. Small groups of demonstrators have stormed into the cathedral during Mass twice in the past month. In the Zocalo, Mexico City's downtown square, where thousands of López Obrador backers have been camping in tents for nearly a month, Rivera's name is uttered derisively.

"He's getting into politics," Alejandro Hernández said, while movie credits scrolled across a television screen in his tent. "The church is for God, not for politics."

Rivera declined to be interviewed. A spokesman, who would not give his name, said, "The cardinal has decided not to give interviews, with the object of not polarizing the situation with his comments."

López Obrador's supporters have interpreted Rivera's remarks as improper intrusions into the political world. Mexican law prohibits religious leaders from direct involvement in politics. But the tension also has roots in history.

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