March 26, 1999

Mexican president makes historic church visit

                  MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -- President Ernesto Zedillo was present at the
                  inauguration of a Roman Catholic cathedral Thursday in an act that church
                  officials described as unprecedented in modern Mexico but that Zedillo's
                  aides scurried to downplay.

                  Zedillo unveiled a plaque at the opening of the cathedral in Ecatepec in the
                  the central state of Mexico, the latest sign of warming relations between the
                  church and the Mexican state.

                  "It's the first time in Mexican history that a president has unveiled a plaque at
                  the inauguration of a cathedral," Onesimo Cepeda, bishop of Ecatepec, told

                  Although at least 90 percent of Mexicans are Catholic, Mexican leaders
                  have long carefully preserved the separation of church and state. The policy
                  is rooted in 19th-century laws that expropriated church property and a
                  1920s war triggered by a government crackdown on the church.

                  But relations have improved in recent years, and in 1992 Mexico established
                  diplomatic ties with the Vatican. In January, Pope John Paul II paid his
                  fourth visit to Mexico.

                  Zedillo aides said the division between church and state had not been

                  "The state is secular," Interior Minister Francisco Labastida said in response
                  to reporters' questions about the significance of Zedillo's visit. "But that does
                  not stop those of us in the government from having not only respectful but
                  cordial and constructive relations with the church."