Church's new leader set to clash with PM

5th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

Conservative cardinal has been staunch opponent of Socialists

5 March 2008

MADRID -  The fiercely conservative Archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, was elected head of Spain's Episcopal Conference on Tuesday, beating the more moderate incumbent and setting the stage for further acrimony between Church and state should Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero be re-elected in the general elections on Sunday.

Rouco, who previously served two consecutive three-year terms as president of the highest body of Spanish bishops between 1999 and 2005, received a slim majority of 39 votes out of the 77 cast by members of the Episcopal Conference. The incumbent leader, Ricardo Blázquez, the bishop of Bilbao, received 37, while a third contender, Antonio Cañizares, the archbishop of Toledo, received one. Blázquez was subsequently elected vice president.

The return of Rouco to the helm of the Episcopal Conference could spell new trouble for Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero if, as opinion polls suggest, he wins re-election on Sunday.

Though Blázquez, a moderate who sought dialogue with the government, was formally the main representative of Spanish bishops, he was frequently undermined by Rouco throughout his three years in office.

The 71-year-old cardinal led unprecedented marches by bishops, churchgoers and conservatives during the past legislature against Zapatero's policies, protesting against the legalisation of gay marriage and reforms to the way religion is taught in schools. And, in December, Rouco joined other conservative Church leaders in accusing Zapatero's administration of weakening democracy and undermining human rights because, he claimed, it had turned its back on the traditional family. But in a press conference after his election, Rouco adopted a conciliatory tone toward the government, offering the "loyal collaboration" of bishops with the "political authorities" so long as it is in the general interest of the Spanish people.

Likewise, Zapatero sent the cardinal a message congratulating him and offering "cooperation and dialogue," aides to the prime minister said.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / A. EATWELL 2008]

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