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Catholic Icon on Campaign Trail Riles Mexicans

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly two centuries after a parish priest raised the flag of the Virgin of Guadalupe to begin the war for Mexican independence, a similar gesture by an opposition presidential candidate has unleashed an angry national debate over mixing religion and politics.

Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party, a front-runner ahead of next July’s election, accepted a pennant bearing the image of Mexico’s patron saint at a campaign rally last week in his native Guanajuato state. As he held the banner aloft, he proclaimed the Virgin an inspiration for his campaign.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, who believers say appeared to Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531, has been for many Roman Catholics the most revered sign of faith in the Western Hemisphere. Pope John Paul II is devoted to the Virgin, whose image in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in northern Mexico City attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.

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She holds a special place in Mexican history: In 1810, Padre Miguel Hidalgo hoisted the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe as he led his troops into battle against Spain.

Yet Mexicans have long fought to separate church and state. Mexico went further than most countries to this end, even stripping the Catholic Church of the right to own property and barring priests from wearing clerical garb in public until the early 1990s.

Both the constitution and electoral law prohibit the use of religious symbols in party names or in political campaigns.

So when Fox accepted the symbol from son Roberto and daughter Paulina at the campaign rally, he was deluged with abuse by some commentators who accused him of blurring the separation of church and state.

Some wondered if the media-savvy Fox had flouted the law intentionally.

“Opportunism or ignorance? Perhaps worse: both,” scoffed Federico Reyes Heroles, one of Mexico’s most prominent commentators. “Does Fox need the virgin to win? . . . To what is Fox calling us, a campaign or a crusade? To fight for true modernity or to return to the darkness?”

The deputy minister for religious affairs, Humberto Lira Mora, condemned the candidate for an “unusual lack of respect . . . in using for political ends a religious symbol that a great number of Mexicans hold in the highest esteem.”

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The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, complained to the Federal Electoral Institute, the independent body that oversees elections. An institute spokeswoman confirmed that an investigation is underway to determine if Fox violated the law. She added, however, that the law doesn’t specify sanctions for such an offense.

Fox’s own party, known as the PAN, distanced itself quickly from his act, with party President Luis Felipe Bravo Mena calling it a circumstantial event that “in no way represents an ideology or a political line.”

Apparently trying to defuse the debate, Fox said this week that he had simply accepted the Virgin’s flag from his children and didn’t mean to use it as a symbol of his campaign.

“The flag with the image of the Virgin will stay in my house,” he said. “. . . I carry the Virgin of Guadalupe in my heart, here inside, and I must not carry her on a banner.”

Fox, however, called the government’s reaction “very infantile.”

The church quickly entered the fray as well. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the archbishop of Mexico City, told reporters that “we all have a Virgin of Guadalupe with us, and he too can carry her, but the Virgin of Guadalupe is for all Mexicans and cannot be used by anyone for party purposes because it the only [symbol] that unites all of us here in Mexico.”

With the turmoil over the Virgin’s image, Fox stayed solidly in the headlines even as the PRI was gearing up for its first-ever primary Nov. 7. In contrast, Fox was the sole nominee in the PAN’s virtually token primary Sunday.

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Sergio Sarmiento, a well-known political analyst, wrote in the daily Reforma newspaper that Fox’s handling of the matter “either shows us a Fox who is excessively innocent, incapable of understanding the consequences or interpretations that may result from his acts as candidate--or very astute, a politician who sought to project his image as a Guadalupano candidate in open violation of the law.

“Nevertheless, I am not certain this will necessarily be positive for him,” Sarmiento added. “The PAN gets the major part of its support from the urban middle classes. This is a group that traditionally shows its Catholic inclinations, but at the same time it is uncomfortable in the face of religious fanaticism.”

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