President Alberto Fujimori is feuding with the Roman Catholic Church over birth control--a confrontation that has raised broader issues of national development and institutional power.
In late July, when Fujimori began his second term, he announced that his administration would give top priority to birth control programs. He said he would not be swayed by taboos and "sacred cows," an allusion to Catholic authorities.
Peruvian bishops bristled.
Then, in September, the Congress quickly passed a government-backed "sterilization law," legalizing vasectomies and tubal ligations for birth control. In response, the church began a campaign of sermons, pamphlets and public declarations strongly opposing government policy.
The confrontation escalated further when Fujimori, in Beijing last month for the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, emphasized his opposition to the Catholic position against artificial birth control methods. The New York Times quoted him as saying that he hoped other South American leaders would join him in a coalition to break Vatican influence on family planning.
Although Fujimori later said those were not his exact words, Peruvian church authorities responded with indignation.
"All I do is pray that he will give up this obsessive attitude against God," said Cardinal Augusto Vargas Alzamora, the Peruvian primate.
Fujimori, a Catholic, has squabbled before with the church over birth control, arguing that national development is at stake.
He says too many poor families with too many mouths to feed make Peruvian poverty harder to overcome.
Vargas Alzamora rejects such arguments, especially those supporting sterilization, a procedure that he calls mutilation.
"Don't let the fountain of life be cut simply to have a population growth plan geared to economic interests," he said in a homily last weekend. "You can't serve two lords: You either love money or love God."
Some Fujimori critics contend that he is engaged in a political offensive against the church, taking advantage of an issue on which it is vulnerable.
Although Peru is predominantly Catholic, surveys have shown that more than 70% of those polled disagree with the church's strictures against contraceptives.
Critics say Fujimori is pursuing a strategy that regards any institution with popular power as a rival.
"There is a systematic policy of eliminating all possibilities of opposition, weak as it may be, now and in the future," said Fernando Rospigliosi, a social scientist and political commentator.
Since Fujimori's first weeks as president in 1990, Catholic leaders have criticized his economic austerity policies as insensitive to the needs of the poor. The church has also protested human rights violations by security forces fighting Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, guerrillas, and this year it opposed an amnesty law proposed by the government to absolve officials involved in human rights crimes.
"It is no exaggeration to argue that President Alberto Fujimori sees a potential danger in a church that does not submit to his designs," the news magazine Caretas said.
Confronting the church may have political costs. Marta Chavez, president of the Congress, is among staunch Fujimori supporters who are against him on birth control.
In Argentina, the late President Gen. Juan D. Peron feuded with the church in 1954, helping to bring on the coup that overthrew him in 1955.
But Fujimori's military relations are widely regarded as solid.
Rospigliosi said the president apparently borrowed his birth control policy from the armed forces.
He cited a 1989 "coup plan," drafted by military officers but never carried out, that recommends reducing population growth as quickly as possible with "generalized use of sterilization processes in culturally backward and economically impoverished groups."
"Public dissemination of opinions contrary to the population policy will not be permitted," the document also says.