Lula and pope disagree over place of religion


BRAZIL: President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told Pope Benedict XVI that he wanted to preserve Brazil's secular state, during their meeting yesterday on the second day of the pope's visit to the world's most populous Catholic country.

A Brazilian ambassador who participated in the half-hour meeting in São Paulo told journalists afterwards that president Lula made clear to the pope he wished "to preserve and consolidate the secular state, and to have religion as an instrument to treat the spirit and social problems".

Such a stance would knock back Vatican attempts to have obligatory religious instruction reintroduced to all of Brazil state- run junior schools. According to the Folha de S Paulo newspaper this is one of the main objectives the Vatican is pushing for in discussions over a new concordat to be signed between the Vatican and Brazil.

In order to allow obligatory religious instruction in schools Brazil would have to change its 1988 constitution, which enshrines freedom of conscience.

The Vatican says the agreement, which it had hoped to sign during the pope's trip and now expects to do so when President Lula visits Rome later this year, will be similar to diplomatic agreements the Vatican has with more than 100 countries about the status of the church.

The Catholic Church and the Brazilian state have clashed in recent years, most prominently when the church lost its campaign to stop the state handing out free condoms in a bid to halt the spread of Aids. Brazil has one of the developing world's most successful programmes to combat Aids, but the church says the free distribution of condoms promotes promiscuity and undermines the family.

The pope and president were reported not to have discussed abortion during their encounter - the other subject that has led to clashes between Brazil's politicians and prelates. The pope arrived on Wednesday amid a war of words between his local subordinates and Brazil's health minister over the minister's proposal to hold a referendum on Brazil's strict abortion laws.

Instead, the two men were said to have discussed ways of combating poverty. President Lula hailed the success of his social programmes in reducing poverty at home and outlined how he thought the development of bio-fuels in Africa could reduce poverty there.

While her husband was defending Brazil's secular state, Brazil's first lady, Marisa Letícia da Silva, took the opportunity to ask the pope to bless the rosary beads she used at her wedding.

After his meeting, Pope Benedict returned to the monastery which is his base in São Paulo, where he met leaders of other faiths in Brazil.

Among those present was Rabbi Henry Sobel, until recently head of São Paulo's Jewish community and a leading light in the struggle for democracy during Brazil's military dictatorship. Rabbi Sobel was forced to resign in March when he was found disorientated and in possession of stolen ties in Palm Beach, Florida.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, he said: "I'm leaving light and happy. After all, it is not every day that a rabbi receives a blessing from a pope. With great humility I asked for a blessing from the pope and was blessed. I also asked the pope's permission to bless him, authorisation which was given."

Each of the 10 religious leaders present received a medal inscribed "Benedictus XVI Pontifex Maximus".

Later the pope took part in a gathering of 35,000 Catholic youth activists drawn from across Brazil and other Latin American countries in a football stadium. All day, crowds gathered all along the routes cleared for the pope's cavalcade as he crisscrossed South America's biggest city. Several times he appeared unannounced at the balcony of the city-centre monastery where he is staying to wave to crowds of faithful and sightseers gathered in the square below.

Today he will celebrate Mass in front of an expected one million people at an airbase, during which he will canonise the first Brazilian-born saint, the Franciscan friar Beato Antônio de Sant'Ana Galvão, known as Frei Galvão. Afterwards he will fly to Brazil's main shrine where on Sunday he will open the fifth conference of Latin American and Caribbean bishops, which will set the course for the church in the region in the years ahead.