Mexican government wary of impending visit by pope

His message may conflict with economic policies

January 22, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MEXICO CITY -- The faithful here are eager, and the secular -- especially government officials -- are worried.

That's because during John Paul II's fourth papal visit to this most populous Spanish-speaking country this weekend, he is expected to inveigh against economic policies that aren't heedful of their social consequences. His call for Mexicans and others to work for economic and social justice will come in public, perhaps in his meeting tomorrow with President Ernesto Zedillo.

The words of the head of the Roman Catholic Church carry weight with many Mexicans, but few observers claim to be sure how they may react.

Already, Mexico's Catholic bishops have complained that more and more people are being pushed into poverty by Zedillo fiscal policies credited with pulling Mexico out of its debt and currency crises.

"Sensitive issues will be brought up, but we know the Vatican is not interested in conflict with the Mexican government," said a Zedillo administration official.

In a series of public and private events here that will conclude Tuesday, the pope is expected to urge greater church participation in political affairs throughout the Americas.

The author of the church's action plan, Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara, recently urged Mexicans to protest free-market policies that led to price increases for basic foods, including tortillas, once controlled by the government.

The church's political role has long been a sensitive issue in the region, especially in Mexico.

Catholic priests led Mexico's revolt against Spain 188 years ago; priests led the "Cristero" insurgency against Mexico's new leaders in the 1920s, leading to thousands of deaths; Bishop Samuel Ruiz is the spiritual leader of the contemporary Zapatista rebels in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Long determinedly secular and at times anti-clerical, the Mexican government has officially allowed open displays of religious fervor only recently.

Economic policies probably won't be the only area of friction. The pope is due to renew his long-standing calls for better protection of human rights in general and of the rights of indigenous tribes in the Americas.

Just this week, the private Human Rights Watch and U.S. officials expressed concern about persistent reports of torture and illegal arrests in Mexico.

"The pope can't come all the way over here and not talk about these issues," the Zedillo administration official said. "But we expect it will be in general terms, and we'll listen."

Mexico's official response may not go beyond just listening.

From the pope's viewpoint, his remarks always have a religious and moral context. And judging from a report prepared for his visit by a group of Latin American bishops, he will reiterate church positions that tend to be seen as conservative on such questions as abortion, but liberal in matters of the social impact of economics.

Religion analysts say Mexicans are an important concern of the pope's, because he is troubled that they are increasingly secular as they modernize and appear to be more and more influenced by consumer societies. He is expected to speak out against what's seen in Mexico as U.S.-style consumerism.

"That's important because the church sees Mexico as a way of maintaining a foothold of influence on Catholics in the United States," said Bernardo Barranco, a sociologist who heads the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico City.

"In the future, Mexicans will make up a majority of the Catholic Church in the United States, so it's important that the pope's message reach them here at home, emigrate with these people and influence the church there."

It's open to debate just how much effect what the pope says in Mexico will have. Although 87 percent of Mexicans say they're Catholic and half regularly attend church services, only 4 percent consider the pope a "political leader," according to the Center for Public Opinion Studies in Guadalajara. Asked what the pope represents, 10 percent said he is a "panacea" for suffering Mexicans.

"I fear the joy he brings will be temporary," said Juana Fernandez, a 34-year-old housewife. "After he leaves the government will be the same: corrupt as ever. And crime and poverty will be the same."

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Pub Date: 1/22/99

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