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Spat with Vatican Looms over Vote in Spain

STEVEN INSKEEP, host:

Forget the Republicans and Democrats for a moment. We're going to take a break from our own election to look at another country's campaign, which will give us an opportunity to reflect on the way that other country mixes politics and religion. Spain's general election is next month and the main players are the ruling Socialist Party and the Conservative Popular Party. But a third player has emerged, the Roman Catholic Church.

Jerome Socolovsky reports from Madrid.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: The Vatican is clearly alarmed by what's happened in Spain under the Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Same-sex couples have been allowed to marry and adopt, divorce restrictions have been eased, and public schools can now offer a secular alternative to classes in Catholicism.

(Soundbite of applause)

SOCOLOVSKY: A few Sunday's ago in Madrid, hundreds of thousands of people listened as clerics railed against the government.

Archbishop AGUSTIN GARCIA-GASCO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: The culture of radical secularism is a fraud, said the Archbishop of Valencia, Agustin Garcia-Gasco. It only leads to despair over abortion, express divorce, and the ideological manipulation of our youth.

Last week the bishops told Catholics note to vote for the Socialists and gave a new reason.

Father JUAN ANTONIO MARTINEZ CAMINO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Catholics can support different parties, said the bishop's spokesman, Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, but they shouldn't elect a party that holds talks with terrorists.

Father CAMINO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: This criticism of the Socialists' attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the Basque separatist group Eta infuriated Zapatero. He responded at an election rally, where the crowd bowed the moment he mention the bishops.

Prime Minister JOSE LUIS RODRIGUEZ ZAPATERO (Spain): (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of booing)

Prime Minister JOSE LUIS RODRIGUEZ ZAPATERO (Spain): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: The bishops have the right to campaign for the opposition, the prime minister said, but this time they've gone too far. The Socialists pointed out that when the previous government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar held talks with Eta, the mediator was none other than a bishop.

Families arrive for mass in the wealthy Madrid neighborhood of La Moraleja. One of the churchgoers, Ledia Yolenta(ph), says she doesn't think the prelates were out of line.

Ms. LEDIA YOLENTA: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They're within their right. And what's more, this is what they should do, she said. We Catholics who are within the church are being attacked. Why do we always have to shut up?

But hers is a minority view. Few Spaniards attend church regularly. Many others still resent what they see as the clerics' political interference, from the Spanish Inquisition all the way up to the Franco dictatorship.

(Soundbite of music)

SOCOLOVSKY: At this weekend's Carnival celebrations in the Madrid suburb of Miraflores de la Sierra, the tensions between church and state were far from the minds of most people. But one man who'd been giving it some thought was biochemist Luis Balle.

Mr. LUIS BALLE: I think that it's going to completely backfire. For the reason that Spain probably is not the same Spain as they think it is. It's a practically agnostic society.

SOCOLOVSKY: If he's right and Zapatero is reelected, the clerics may have even more to worry about. A Socialist Party official says it's time to review the seven billion dollar subsidy that goes to the church.

For NPR, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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