Mexico Catholics fear church influencing election

Mexico City, Mexico - A group of Mexican Catholic community groups said on Thursday the church may be using hot-button issues like abortion to sway voters in favor of the conservative ruling party candidate in the presidential election.

They said workshops and other forums arranged by church leaders could illegally interfere in the July 2 election, taking advantage of ties with President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party, or PAN.

"The risk of the Catholic hierarchy influencing votes has been greater in these federal elections than in others due to its closeness to the federal executive," said Guadalupe Cruz, speaking on behalf of six community-based "progressive" Catholic groups. "The main risk is with the PAN."

Fox's party has roots in Catholicism, the dominant religion in Mexico. PAN presidential candidate Felipe Calderon, tied in first place in opinion polls, comes from a devout Catholic family and opposes legalizing abortion.

Cruz said church leaders may be backing candidates who fit an ideological profile, mainly on questions of "sexual morality" and in rural and indigenous areas where church and government often are intertwined and voters are unaware of the laws.

"Those factors increase the risk of influencing votes in favor of the PAN," Cruz said. "But the PAN is not the party of Catholics, Calderon is not the Catholics' candidate."

Her coalition includes Catholics who oppose church doctrine on birth control and support legalizing abortion, now banned in most cases in Mexico. It has a national campaign to persuade Catholics to vote freely and denounce church interference.

Mexico's Roman Catholic Church held unprecedented private meetings with the top presidential candidates this year and called on them to speak up on issues like abortion. It is running a series of educational workshops for voters.

That puts it on delicate ground in this nation of more than 100 million people, some 85 percent of them Catholic. Many church members cherish the legal separation between church and state and question religious doctrine on birth control.

The church insists its nationwide workshops are designed to give Catholic voters a clear idea of where candidates stand rather than influence their choices.

A few Mexican clergymen already face formal complaints before election authorities of trying to sway voters from the pulpit.

Fox, a practicing Catholic elected in 2000, is seen as opening the way to greater church influence within the state. He stunned the country when he kissed Pope John Paul II's ring during the pontiff's visit to Mexico in 2002.

His Interior Minister Carlos Abascal has been accused of pushing a Catholic agenda in opposing a federal decision to put the emergency contraceptive, or "morning after" pill, in public clinics.