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Mexico's Protestants Disturbed by Narrowing Line between Church and State - 2002-09-29

An expert on minority religions, is warning that Mexican President Vicente Fox's increasing displays of ardent Roman Catholicism, are angering the country's Evangelical Protestant community.

Some indications of a growing tolerance for a certain blending of church and state are becoming more evident. On the day of his inauguration, Vicente Fox became the first Mexican president to attend mass. And on a recent papal visit to Mexico, he publicly kissed the pope's ring, while during Independence Day celebrations, Archbishop Norberto Rivera became the first senior priest in more than 150 years to salute the national flag in the country's principal cathedral.

Professor Carlos Garma, a specialist on minority religions at Mexico's National Metropolitan University, says the narrowing line between church and state is deeply disturbing to many Protestants.

"Well, many of them feel betrayed. They never really liked Fox, and they did not like his government," he said. "I have spoken to some pastors who now actually lament that they have to live at this moment in Mexico. They say, well this country seems to be going backwards, nothing seems to be going right nowadays, and in public we see the president doing these things."

Although he is open about practicing his religion in a country which remains overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, President Fox strongly denies any official religious bias. He states that total freedom of worship is open to all in Mexico. Yet he also suggests that the state and church can work together on vital social issues such as the monitoring of human rights.

"We welcome the church in this phase of its endeavor, and we welcome the church in the promotion of these human values and those spiritual values," he said. "I think that this is where we, both government and church meet for the same job."

Professor Garma concedes that President Fox's actions are not calculated, and indeed are often even spontaneous. But he argues that the same cannot be said for the Catholic Church, which, he says, wants to consolidate its position in Mexico.

"Yes, the church is quite clearly regaining influence, and they are trying to maneuver in order to see how far they can gain elements within this situation," he said. "For them it is quite clearly a strategy they are following."

Sergio Carranza, the Anglican bishop of Mexico, argues that President Fox's actions in this respect are not coincidences, but agrees with Professor Garma concerning the possible response from the Catholic Church.

"I'm certainly concerned that in using religion for his political purposes, he might give the political hierarchy of the Roman Church an opportunity to try to consolidate a position of power in the country," he said.

Unsurprisingly the Roman Catholic Church does not agree. Father Manuel Olimon, who is the director of history at the Pontifica University in Mexico City, and an expert on Vatican law, says absolutely nothing can change the clearly defined legal separation of church and state in Mexico. But he suggests that President Fox does seem receptive to non-political social issues, which his church champions.

"It is impossible for the church now to have a big political space, because the opinion and culture of the people is plural," said Father Olimon. "So I think it is very good that the church has space in society to speak in the name of the gospel, and to say social doctrines, but not to have power, because I think this is erroneous and is not the pope's position in this world."

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which held the Presidency for 71 years until Mr. Fox's historic victory has always been happy to allow the church its due concerning overall religious tolerance and its clerical devotions, while not permitting it to comment or stray into an matter of political policy or social development agenda.