Bolivia keeps Catholicism in schools

La Paz, Bolivia - President Evo Morales has backed off a proposal to remove Roman Catholic instruction from Bolivia's schools, easing a dispute with church officials over his plan to place greater emphasis on Indian faiths.

Morales, an Aymara Indian and the Andean nation's first indigenous president, had earlier accused the Catholic hierarchy of behaving as if they were "in the times of the Inquisition." But the leftist leader made peace with church officials late Sunday in a conference with Cardinal Julio Terrazas in the highland city of Cochabamba.

"The government and the Catholic church agree to preserve the course on religion, respecting the existing religious diversity in the country," said a joint statement from Morales and Terrazas released Monday.

Sunday's meeting was delayed more than two hours after Morales broke his nose during a soccer game. After receiving medical treatment, the president arrived at the meeting with his nose covered in a bandage and spoke with Terrazas for 2 1/2 hours.

The men signed an agreement that mentioned religious diversity but made no provision for broadening the scope of the solely Catholic curriculum taught in Bolivia's schools.

Morales' decision represents a dramatic about-face for his administration.

In June, Education Minister Felix Patzi proposed replacing Catholic teaching with a broader "history of religions" course that put greater emphasis on indigenous faiths. He also proposed "decolonizing" Bolivia's education system by teaching classes in indigenous languages.

Polls show two-thirds of Bolivians consider themselves Catholic, and the proposal prompted protests in support of the church.

One Catholic group in the eastern city of Santa Cruz organized a street march to defend the teaching of their religion in schools. Terrazas had earlier told Catholics to stop being "passive" and defend their faith.

Patzi later said Catholicism would be taught alongside world religions, especially Bolivian Indian religions.

Morales won the presidency in this nation of 9 million people in December. His relations with the United States have chilled as he forged closer ties with Venezuela and Cuba.

Morales' high popularity here has dipped following his proposal to secularize education. A survey published Monday by the newspaper La Razon showed the president with an approval rating of 68 percent, down from 75 percent in June. Meanwhile, the survey found that 83 percent of Bolivians surveyed have a favorable opinion of the Catholic church.

The survey of 1,009 Bolivians living in the country's four major cities was conducted July 10-17 and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.