Jose Alperovich has the credentials to become the next governor of the province of Tucuman. He is an Argentine senator, a rising star in the ruling Peronist party and protege to the current governor.

He also is Jewish. And that, a number of prominent voices here say, disqualifies him from becoming Tucuman's chief executive under Article 80 of the provincial constitution, which requires the governor to take a Christian oath.

"I never thought, in the 21st century, we'd see something like this," said Alperovich, who is favored in most opinion polls here for elections expected in March or April. He is challenging Article 80 in the provincial supreme court. "It doesn't make any sense that I can be president, that I'm already a senator, but that I can't be governor."

Article 80 says the governor must swear fealty to "God, the Fatherland and the Christian saints." Luis Villalba, Tucuman's Roman Catholic archbishop, launched the controversy just before Christmas when he said the constitutional provision means the governor must be Catholic.

"We have to start respecting the law," Villalba said on a local television program. "We must follow the constitution to the last detail. Our country is falling apart because no one follows or respects the law."

Article 80 is no relic of a distant, dark era in Argentine history. It was written in 1990, when the provincial government was dominated by a retired army general, Antonio Bussi, a right-wing politician and key figure in Argentina's "dirty war" against government opponents in the 1970s and '80s.

Bussi was de facto governor of Tucuman during the years of Argentina's dictatorship. He was elected governor by popular vote in 1995 and continued to mold the province to his Catholic vision.

He redesigned the provincial flag -- it became a large, white crucifix on a blue field. Then he drafted a law that obliged all public and private schools, including this city's Jewish school, to raise the new flag each day. Since 1999, Bussi has faced an international arrest warrant issued by Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish judge who previously went after the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, on charges of "terrorism, genocide and torture" during the dictatorship.

Bussi has not commented on the current controversy. But the men and women who wrote the constitution with him a decade ago have stepped forward to defend Villalba's statements.

"We put in the requirement that the executive must take this oath because no one can deny that Tucuman is made up of a Catholic majority of 99.5 percent," said Julio Cesar Ivarez Suriani, president of the 1990 provincial Constitutional Convention.

"The same thing happens in Israel, where a Catholic could never be president, no matter how many votes he wins," Suriani said. "We should follow the old Roman aphorism: dura lex, sed lex. The law is harsh, [but] it is the law."

For many among Argentina's 200,000 Jews, the controversy is just another in a long line of incidents with anti-Semitic overtones in a country where many people are not yet comfortable with the cosmopolitan society growing up around them.

"In Argentina, people don't take these kinds of statements seriously yet," said Sergio Widder, Buenos Aires representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "They don't realize that intolerance is incompatible with living in a democracy."

In Tucuman province, one of the most impoverished corners of Argentina's desolate north, it is not uncommon for a social club to exclude Jews or for the local Jewish cemetery to be desecrated, said Simon Litvak, president of the United Israel Society of Tucuman.

And now, the debate over Alperovich's candidacy is bringing a new wave of anti-Semitism to the airwaves and newspapers, Litvak said. "Sometimes I feel I'm living in a Nazi country."

One newspaper columnist accused Alperovich of "wanting to tear down [Tucuman's] cathedral and replace it with a synagogue." Pablo Calvetti, leader of Bussi's Republican Force party, said of the court challenge to Article 80: "If we keep going this way, we'll allow even the insane to become governor."

Alperovich, 47, is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants who fled the violence of World War II. A successful businessman, he drifted to politics in the mid-1990s and was economy minister in the provincial government before becoming a senator.

He practices his religion but says he is not especially devout. "I go to synagogue once a year, I celebrate Yom Kippur, but I don't deny my religion."