Chile president warns cardinal to avoid politics

SANTIAGO, Chile - President Ricardo Lagos on Monday warned the Vatican's top liturgy expert to stay out of Chilean politics in a deepening row between the government and the country's powerful and conservative Catholic church.

Lagos said Cardinal Jorge Medina stepped beyond his remit last week when he expressed support for a retired navy chief who is close to former dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

"Excuse me for speaking clearly, but I don't like the idea of Chilean politics being made by admirals and a cardinal," Lagos told journalists.

It was the latest point of friction between the church and the government of Lagos, the first Chilean president to call himself a socialist since before the 1973-1990 dictatorship.

The Catholic church is trying to water down government plans to legalize divorce, forbidden under a civil code that dates back to the late 19th century. Chileans say their country is the only Western democracy where there is no divorce.

Medina, a Chilean arch-conservative, last week urged Catholics not to vote in parliamentary elections in December for candidates who support divorce or abortion, which the Vatican opposes.

The church has also criticized plans by the health and education ministries to introduce sex education in schools and promote the day-after contraceptive pill.

The president took exception to remarks by the cardinal in favor of retired admiral Jorge Arancibia, a right-wing candidate for senator, who was criticized for wearing his navy uniform in campaign photographs.

"It is not comforting to see political activity being carried out by a gentleman whose uniform has caused controversy and a cardinal of the church who arrived here carrying a Vatican passport," Lagos said.

Medina is the prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, a Rome-based Vatican body that regulates Catholic ritual.


Chile, a country of 15 million people geographically isolated from much of the world by the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is one of Latin America's most socially conservative countries.

Many of Chile's wealthiest families are devoutly Catholic and the church's conservative Opus Dei organization is influential in business circles.

The El Mercurio newspaper said on Monday that a parliamentary commission might revise government plans to legalize divorce to take into account the church's opposition.

It said the church had suggested formalizing a makeshift arrangement under which Chileans who want to separate have their marriages annulled through torturous legal loopholes.

One of the most common ways to gain an annulment is for Chilean couples to claim their marriage certificate is not valid because details on it, such as an address, are wrong.

They produce witnesses who falsely swear that the married couple did not live at the addresses they gave to the registrar at the time of the wedding. Civil officials mostly turn a blind eye to the scam.

Around 80 percent of Chileans regard themselves as Catholics, but a recent university survey showed that 44 percent of those interviewed supported legalizing divorce, while 32 percent were opposed to it.

18:32 08-27-01

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