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Scandal at Black Virgin's dark past

On 12 December 1531, according to Catholic historians, an event occurred on a Mexican hilltop which changed the face of the Americas. Or did it? Occur, that is. The question is rocking Latin America.

The Catholic abbot in charge of one of Latin America's holiest shrines, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, promised to resign yesterday after implying that a peasant's 1531 vision of the "Black Virgin of Guadalupe" may have been a con by the conquistadores.

It has been said before, particularly by Protestant preachers, but this was the guardian of the renowned Basilica, to which millions of Roman Catholics make pilgrimages every year, often approaching for hundreds of yards on their knees to show their devotion to the Black Virgin, Mexico's patron saint. Believers were outraged.

Abbot Guillermo Schulemberg, 81, appointed to the post directly by the Pope in 1963, insists he maintains his faith in the Virgin and was questioning only the historical existence of Juan Diego, the Indian said to have had the vision. But that still caused uproar among Catholics who revere Juan Diego, beatified by Pope John Paul in 1990 during a visit to the Basilica.

"It's like an American doubting the existence of Abraham Lincoln," said one Mexican.

The abbot is to give his resignation to the Pope in October.

Some Mexicans believe the abbot has been "set up" by rival archbishops in a power struggle over the Basilica's huge income. A Mexican weekly news magazine, Proceso, recently published photographs of luxury houses Abbot Schulemberg reportedly owns in Mexico City, and noted that he had a taste for expensive cars.

Church sources say the abbot had hoped to create a separate diocese for the Basilica, which currently has a large degree of financial autonomy but which falls within the diocese of Mexico City. The city's archbishop, Norberto Rivera, might prefer to take complete control of the Basilica. Catholic pilgrims donate millions of dollars to the shrine annually.

Basilica priests deny it, but many Mexicans believe the Basilica takes a cut of the profits from countless Black Virgin trinkets and portraits sold by vendors outside the shrine.

Vendor earn up to 500 pesos (pounds 45) a day - more than 20 times the minimum wage.

Other Mexicans blame the country's president, Ernesto Zedillo, for stoking the controversy as a distraction from his government's social, political and economic problems.

It was on 12 December 1531, a decade after the conquest by Cortes, that the humble Indian peasant, visiting the ancient Aztec shrine to the Goddess Tonantzin (Mother God) outside Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), reputedly had a vision of a "Black Virgin" with the face of an Indian. Whether by choice or force the historians do not specify, but the Indian man had already adopted a Spanish name, Juan Diego.

Miraculously, after a decade of failing to win over local hearts and minds, the Spaniards had found the perfect catalyst to fuse the Indians' paganism with the cult of the Virgin Mary. Converting the natives, after all, had been the original raison d'etre of the conquest ordered by Spain's Catholic kings. But the first dozen Franciscan friars sent out as missionaries in 1524 had struggled to communicate with Indians, who spoke more than 100 languages and worshipped the Sun, Moon and other gods.

The cult of the Black Virgin of Guadalupe spread through South America, speeding the conquest and creating the unique mix of Catholicism with pagan undertones that is still very much in evidence today.

The Black Virgin was traditionally carried into battles on banners. Now she dangles from taxi drivers' rear view mirrors. Pilgrims buy Black Virgin table lamps and Black Virgin soap.

The abbot's controversial theory is not new and was reportedly known by other church leaders for years.

The scandal broke when Abbot Schulemberg was quoted in the Italian magazine 30 Giorni (30 Days) last month. "Juan Diego is more of a symbol than a reality," he said. Right or wrong, the abbot seems to have lost the battle with believers.