Bolivia bows to church on religious education

La Paz, Bolivia - BOLIVIA'S President, Evo Morales, has scrapped a proposal to drop religious education from the school curriculum because of opposition by the country's powerful Catholic Church.

About 80 per cent of Bolivians are Catholics and the leftist Government's proposal to replace religion lessons with ethics classes has drawn controversy as the country prepares to rewrite its constitution.

Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday to pick representatives to a national assembly that will begin reforming the constitution in August - a key election pledge from Mr Morales, who says the process will "refound" Bolivia.

"There's no reason for a confrontation or a distancing between the church and the state," said the archbishop of La Paz, Edmundo Abastoflor, who is also the vice-president of the country's Episcopal Conference of church leaders.

The state news agency ABI quoted Mr Morales as saying: "We've cleared up a few things, and I want to reiterate that there's a lot of common ground between the Catholic Church, the Government and MAS [Mr Morales' Movement Towards Socialism party]."

Church leaders called for talks with the President to raise their concerns over the education minister's proposals, which have also drawn protests from parents and students.

Jesus Juarez, the archbishop of El Alto, threatened to organise street protests to defend religious teaching. Impoverished El Alto is one of Mr Morales' most important support bases.

Another influential priest in the city of nearly a million people, Sebastian Obermaier, praised "the wisdom of President Morales".

Last week he said he would urge his parishioners not to vote for MAS in the July 2 election due to the proposal.

Bolivia's constitution recognises Catholicism as the official religion, but the church has said it would accept a secular state.