The Catholic Church inserted itself into the U.S. presidential race Friday. A top Vatican cardinal said in Rome that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied communion at Mass. The comment sparked a reaction from the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who happens to be a Catholic.

At a Vatican news conference, Cardinal Francis Arinze said priests should deny the sacrament of communion to any Catholic politician who supports the right of a woman to have an abortion.

But the cardinal fell short of singling out Senator Kerry who has long supported abortion rights.

The Kerry campaign issued a statement saying that religion should not be an issue in U.S. politics. A Kerry spokesman said the candidate would make decisions as president based on his obligations to the people and to the U.S. Constitution, not on the basis of religion.

If elected, Senator Kerry would become only the second Catholic president in U.S. history, following John Kennedy who was elected in 1960.

Senator Kerry reaffirmed his support for abortion rights Friday at a rally in Washington hosted by several women's groups that are supporting his candidacy.

"As President Clinton said so often and I think everyone here agrees, abortion should be rare but it should be safe and legal and the government should stay out of the bedrooms of Americans," he said.

Abortion figures once again to be a divisive issue in the November election campaign with Democrats warning that a victory by President Bush would allow him to appoint anti-abortion justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court legalized abortion in 1973.

On the other side of the issue, Republicans are mobilizing abortion opponents to turn out and vote in November. Anti-abortion activists, many of them conservative Christians, are considered an important constituency within the Republican Party.

Vice President Dick Cheney spoke to members of the National Right to Life Committee earlier this week. "All that matters is your respect for the claims of innocent life. To be part of this cause is to believe that every mother carrying new life and every child waiting to be born deserves understanding and compassion," he said.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of abortion rights supporters are expected in Washington for a march and rally intended to highlight abortion as an election year issue.