Mexico state set for clash with church

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If Graham Greene were alive, he might be tempted to write The Power and the Glory Part Two. In Mexico, where he set his 1940 novel, church and state were this week embroiled in their biggest confrontation since the 1920s War of the Cristeros which gave Greene his plot.

Catholics around the country hold prayer services today, originally planned as a show of strength against the growing influence of Protestantism. But they may turn into a historic, nation-wide protest against the long- ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Could the Church finally do what Mexico's opposition parties have been unable to do - spark the end of nearly seven decades of PRI rule? Many Catholics believe so. And some members of the PRI fear so.

The latest confrontation began last week, when Archbishop Norberto Rivera, the country's senior Catholic churchman, gave an unprecedented homily in which he clearly urged acts of civil disobedience against the PRI government. "Since the Church is the continuation of Jesus in history, it can and must get involved in politics just as Jesus did," he said.

"When authority goes beyond legal boundaries, there is no obligation to obey it. If it openly opposes human rights, we have to withhold obedience."

In a nation where church and state have clashed since the Spanish conquest, but most notably during the brutal repression of priests in the Twenties and Thirties, his words became frontpage headlines.

In the first official government warning to the Church in recent history, the Interior Ministry called the Archbishop's speech unconstitutional and said he could be fined pounds 40,000 and suspended from all church activities. His words "could create a destabilising climate", the ministry said.

Perhaps upmost in the mind of the PRI, which has been in uninterrupted power since 1929, was the fact that the Catholic Church supports the fast- rising conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN), which is now seen as more likely than the the left to loosen the PRI's grip on power. The PAN quickly announced that it supported the Archbishop's views and his right to express them.

Some commentators took the PRI's side, attacking the Church for alleged links with Mexican drug-trafficking cartels. A commentator in the daily El Financiero, Jorge Fernandez, noted that the papal nuncio, the Vatican's envoy in Mexico, Girolamo Prigione, had heard confessions in 1994 from two of the country's most wanted drug traffickers, the Arellano brothers of the Tijuana cartel.

The papal envoy admitted the meeting but said he was bound to secrecy.

The brothers were accused of killing the Archbishop of Guadalajara, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas, in a hail of gunfire outside Guadalajara airport in 1993. The most widely-held theory on the murder was that he was mistaken for a drug-lord but some Mexicans suspected he may have had ties with the traffickers.

Mexico's post-revolutionary 1917 constitution sought to crush the Church's traditional power and wealth. It nationalised church property, banned religious processions and barred priests from voting, owning property or wearing clerical dress in public.

In the Twenties and Thirties, successive governments carried out campaigns of repression, described by Greene in his initial 1938 factual account, The Lawless Roads, and later in The Power and the Glory. In the latter, a nameless "whisky priest" is hunted like a hare during the anti-clerical purge before being shot by firing-squad. Only in 1992, when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari re-established diplomatic relations with the Vatican, were the restrictions on the Church and priests finally lifted. However, political statements are still banned under the constitution.