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  Mexico Inches Toward Closer Church Ties

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 10, 1991; Page A14

MEXICO CITY -- The government and the Roman Catholic Church have begun a delicate reconciliation, seeking to overcome a legacy of official anticlericalism from Mexico's revolutionary past.

In chaotic turn-of-the-century struggles that formed the modern state, the landowning Catholic Church hierarchy on several occasions supported dictatorial regimes against popular uprisings that the ruling Institutional Revolutonary Party regard as its ideological foundation.

Today, after more than 60 uninterrupted years in power, members of the PRI still respond with passion against proposals to remove constitutional restraints on the church.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari set the reconciliation in motion by declaring as he took office in December 1988 that Mexico's confrontational church-state relations should be modernized along with the rest of the country. Taking him at his word, the Mexican Conference of Bishops six months later formally demanded revision of constitutional clauses stripping the church of legal recognition and barring clerics from owning property, propagating the faith, voting or running schools.

In a country that is 90 percent Catholic, the church in fact operates thousands of schools and spreads its doctrine in a variety of ways, including colorful processions that are a traditional part of village life. Churches confiscated during the revolution have remained public property, however, and the country's nearly 3,000 priests still cannot vote.

The government, in an understanding accepted by both sides, has looked the other way at religious education and public worship since the end of a religious rebellion in the 1920s that prompted severe persecution in many parts of the country. For instance, one of the country's top academic institutions, the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, was founded and is operated by Jesuits.

"It is absurd," said Bishop Genaro Alamilla Arteaga, president of the Conference of Bishops' communication commission. "The government does not observe the laws, and we do not abide by them."

In an interview, Bishop Alamilla said he regularly presides over religious processions in his district of Mexico City that wind by city hall and that officials inside react by offering a friendly salute to the passing worshipers.

"The Mexican people have been obliged to live a double life, the life of facts and the life of legality," said the Conference of Bishops in its appeal to Salinas for constitutional change. "This is a source of disorientation of consciences and of very serious moral corruption."

Salinas has yet to respond to the church's request. In several interviews, however, he has continued to hold out the idea of eventual revisions in the law. But Interior Minister Fernando Gutierrez Barrios said last month that the government is not contemplating them soon.

"The only thing they {Mexican prelates} have left to do is respect the government's decisions," declared Sen. Saul Gonzalez Herrera, with an edge still discernible among many PRI officials when the subject is raised. Nevertheless, Salinas already has ordered several significant changes in church-state relations.

Mexican bishops and the pope's apostolic delegate here, Bishop Jeronimo Prigione, have begun to meet regularly and in public view with Salinas and his ministers. Previously, such meetings were rare and in secret, Bishop Alamilla recalled.

Prigione's car was authorized to carry diplomatic license plates for the first time last year, even though Mexico has no formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican. This came shortly after Salinas named Agustin Tellez Cruces as the first Mexican diplomatic representative to the Vatican in many years.

"These are symptoms that something is changing," Prigione told the magazine Proceso recently. "I visit the president, and Tellez Cruces visits the pope. When I have some problem or when the pope assigns me something, I visit Mr. Salinas. I ask for an audience, and the president receives me. This has become an accepted thing. Before, one never knew if he would be received."

In the wake of these signs of a shift in attitude, speculation was widespread, particularly among the clergy, that Salinas would renew formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican during a visit, held yesterday, with Pope John Paul II. Foreign Minister Fernando Solana declared the visit a courtesy call and said reestablishment of relations was not under study for the time being.

Formal ties were cut in 1861 by a decree from Mexican president Benito Juarez that also ordered expulsion of the papal nuncio in the shortest time "absolutely necessary to prepare your trip."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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