In protest to Vatican, Spanish government condemns bishops' election comments

Madrid, Spain - The Spanish government is protesting a veiled statement from Roman Catholic bishops that voters should shun the ruling Socialists in elections next month, the Spanish foreign minister says.

The Spanish ambassador to the Holy See, Francisco Vazquez, met Feb. 2 with a Vatican official to express "perplexity and surprise" over the bishops' comments, Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said.

The Spanish Bishops Conference had released a statement indicating that voters should not back parties that support gay marriage or other policies contrary to church teaching, nor should they support talks with armed Basque militants _ clearly references to the governing Socialists.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero legalized same-sex marriage, streamlined divorce, and tried in vain to negotiate a peace accord in 2006 with the armed Basque group ETA.

Moratinos, speaking in the southern city of Cordoba, criticized Spain's church hierarchy as "fundamentalist and neo-conservative." He said the church does not represent a majority of Spanish Catholics and is "using terrorism politically to divide all Spaniards."

"We want to maintain a better level of relations with the Holy See, but we do not understand this posture," Moratinos said.

In Spain, leaders of the Catholic Church have long sided with the right. They supported the fascist forces of late Gen. Francisco Franco in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and his near four-decade dictatorship. Under democracy, church leaders, without naming a political party, have consistently indicated support for conservatives in elections.