Brazilian Senate approves deal with Vatican

Brasilia, Brazil - The Brazilian Senate approved an agreement with the Vatican that sets up a new legal framework for the Brazilian Roman Catholic Church. The deal approved by the Senate late Wednesday is spelled out over 20 articles and gives the Roman Catholic Church fiscal benefits and state help for the maintenance of cultural assets like buildings, museums and libraries.

It also sets ups a framework for religious education, and makes Roman Catholic marriages legally equivalent to civil marriages.

The deal, which had already been approved by the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, is still pending the approval of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. It is regarded as certain that he will sign the measure into law.

Lula finalized the agreement - which is set to replace a statute that dates back to 1980 - with Pope Benedict XVI in November 2008, in a visit to the Vatican.

According to the new rules, the Brazilian Roman Catholic Church is acknowledged as a legal entity. Critics see the deal as a way to grant the church privileges over other religious communities, and are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Despite dwindling numbers of faithful, Brazil is regarded as the country with the largest number of Roman Catholics in the world with between 125 million and 155 million adherents.