May 7, 2000
Catholic Church conference symbolizes stronger role in Mexican life

                  MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Thousands of devout Mexicans attended a Mass for the
                  sick on Sunday, the culmination of a four-day national religious conference aimed
                  at raising the Catholic Church's public profile.

                  The Mass concluded the country's second-ever National Eucharistic Congress, a
                  series of unusually public religious events that appeared to symbolize a new boldness
                  for the Church, which Mexican law has relegated to the background for 150 years.

                  "In other countries religion is taken far more into account in public life," complained
                  62-year-old school teacher Arnoldo Sintas as he helped his aging mother-in-law into
                  the Guadalupe Basilica for the special ceremony.

                  The highlight of the religious congress was an open-air Mass held Saturday night
                  in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza -- the nation's most important public space.

                  Nearly 150 bishops, archbishops and several cardinals appeared together on a
                  platform, while tens of thousands of faithful gathered below.

                  "Nobody should be frightened of Jesus Christ. Christ is not trying to compete
                  with anybody. He isn't trying to replace anybody," said Cardinal Norberto Rivera,
                  referring to a century of state restrictions on religion, rooted in the
                  post-independence reaction to the church's collusion with Spanish colonial rule.

                  "There hasn't been anything like this since 1924," said an emotional Maria
                  Calderon as she watched the Mass while protecting herself from the drizzle with
                  a sheet of plastic.

                  The 72-year-old nun was referring to the last Eucharistic Congress, held just
                  before the state intensified its crackdown on religion, setting off the Catholic
                  uprising known as the Cristera War.

                  The war ended with the Church promising not to rise up against the staunchly
                  secularist 1917 constitution.

                  But gradually the church's freedom and behind-the-scenes influence increased,
                  but its role in public life remained limited. A 1992 reform abolished many rules,
                  such as the ban on wearing habits in public.

                  But in March, clergy openly challenged one remaining restriction _ against
                  involvement in politics -- by speaking out on the upcoming presidential elections,
                  scheduled for July 2.

                  In one letter, the Church called for a vote against abortion, a seeming nod to the
                  main opposition candidate, Vicente Fox, whose conservative center-right
                  National Action Party has some roots in the Cristera uprising.

                  On Saturday in the troubled southern state of Chiapas, the new Catholic bishop,
                  Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, promised Zapatista rebels that he would intercede on
                  their behalf to resolve a 6-year-old conflict with the government.

                  With 100 million people, Mexico is one of the most populous predominantly
                  Catholic nations in the world. Nonetheless, suspicion of the church's drive for
                  greater involvement in national affairs runs deep, partly because politics is
                  popularly perceived as an inherently dirty business.

                  Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.