March 10, 2008 / 12:08 AM / in 9 years

Church row exposes splits in Spain before vote

<p>Spain's Prime Minister and Socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (R) and Socialist Party Housing Minister Carme Chacon attend an electoral meeting at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, March 6, 2008.Gustau Nacarino</p>

MADRID (Reuters) - When Spanish bishops advised Catholics on how to vote in next Sunday's election, Spaniards were reminded of the Church's one-time power, but also of how that power has waned.

The advice -- seen as a direct swipe at the policies of the ruling Socialists -- outraged some and rekindled memories of the Church's powerful role during the years of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship after the 1936-39 civil war.

But others, like the hundreds of thousands who took part in a rally in favor of the traditional family in December, welcomed the bishops' criticism of Socialist policies like the legalization of gay marriage and laws to make divorce easier.

This divide may surface in Sunday's election, and could be important if the vote is tight. Then, social questions -- like gay marriage, abortion and divorce -- could come to the fore alongside the main campaigning issue, the economy.

In the last surveys published before a pre-election ban on opinion polls came into force, the traditionally Catholic opposition Popular Party (PP) lagged the Socialists by about 4 percentage points.

And looking beyond Sunday, those most concerned by the issues raised in the Church's statement are watching for any signs of backtracking in Spain's liberal society.

"I'm not left-wing at all, really, but I'm worried that if the government changes, we could take a step back on social changes if people like the Church get more influence," said Ivan Diaz, a gay man living in Madrid.

Diaz married Antonio Tenorio last year after the Socialist government legalized gay marriage in a move that outraged conservative Spaniards and the Catholic Church. Several thousand gay couples have been married so far.

"When I was growing up, the fact that I was gay was a disaster for a lot of people in my family but now things are different," said Tenorio who moved to Madrid to escape prejudice in his home town.

A primary school teacher, Tenorio illustrates how Spain has evolved from a traditional and staunchly Catholic country since democracy returned after Franco's death in 1975.

SENSITIVE DEBATE

According to a recent poll in right-wing newspaper El Mundo, 34 percent of people thought the Church's pre-election note would benefit the PP. But nearly 26 percent thought it would be bad for Mariano Rajoy's party, and 27 percent thought it would have no effect.

Spain was long one of Europe's most conservative countries but now church attendance has fallen steeply, divorce rates are among the highest in the European Union, and families are shrinking due to one of the world's lowest birthrates.

Some think the church-state spat could push secular voters towards the Socialist camp in a country that that has some of the most liberal social attitudes in Europe. It was young, liberal voters who gave Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero a surprise victory in 2004.

Even the PP, whose supporters are traditionally conservative and faithful voters, has steered clear of allying itself with the Church's stance -- a fact that illustrates the extraordinary sensitivity of the church-state debate and the PP's fears that any pledge to backtrack could cost it votes.

Zapatero has said extremists in the Catholic Church would have too much power if the PP won the election.

That might not annoy everyone. Some Spaniards are uncomfortable with the pace of change and this anxiety has merged with fears about rising crime because of unemployment to create a demand for more conservative policies.

Hundreds of thousands turned out at a December rally in Madrid to hear bishops slam laws on divorce and abortion.

"Yes, I'm worried about the economy but I can't see that a change of government would make much difference there," said Ignacio Plaza, who runs a fruit and vegetable stall in Madrid.

"This country is out of control," said Plaza. "The immigrants are becoming a real problem and I don't like abortion or this gay marriage thing. That's not a real marriage." He was likely to vote for Rajoy, he said.

DIFFERENT ATMOSPHERE

A PP government would probably tighten the workings of the abortion law, for example, and some Spaniards feel the atmosphere would undergo a fundamental shift if the party won.

"If Rajoy wins, I don't think he would dare change the gay marriage law but they will look at things like abortion and those that are against change will feel supported," said Diaz.

In its statement on voting, the Church urged Spaniards not to vote for parties that negotiate with Basque separatists ETA -- an apparent jibe at the Socialists who held failed peace talks in 2006.

It also spoke out against the legalization of gay marriage and the reduced importance of religion in the school curriculum, both reforms carried out by the Socialists.

The election this week of the hardline Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid, as chairman of the Spanish Bishops' Conference is likely to be interpreted as a move towards an even more conservative stance.

"The Church made its position pretty clear in that note," says Pepe Villaverde, who runs a newspaper kiosk in Madrid's Salamanca district. "I don't really care what they say, but in Spain there are still a lot of people who do."

"I don't want to even think about a Spain where the bishops have more say," says Tenorio. "I know there are people out there who want that but we have to move forward, don't we?"

(For a factbox on the role of the Church in Spain, please double-click on)

Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile

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