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New Costa Rican president aims to keep good relations with church

By Chrissie Long, Catholic News Service

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (CNS) -- Costa Rica will swear in its first female president May 8: Laura Chinchilla, a 51-year-old, Washington-educated progressive.

The former vice president campaigned on the issue of citizen safety, promising greater protection for a country left increasingly vulnerable to the northward movement of drugs. She also adopted her predecessor's goal of making Costa Rica the first carbon-neutral country by 2021 and pledged to convert the nation into Latin America's first developed country.

But as she prepared to take office, she faced pressure about the government's longtime relationship with the Catholic Church -- a connection inscribed in the constitution.

As the country knocks on the door to the developed world, local academics and human rights advocates see the church-state relationship as handicapping the country's progress. Some advocates have called for a referendum on homosexual marriages, which the church opposes.

Other activist organizations have protested the long-awaited free trade agreement with Europe because the European Union has strict standards against homophobic legislation and applies those same standards to its trading partners.

A handful of intellectuals are initiating conversations with new legislators about an eventual move toward a secular state.

"Costa Rica, as we know it, is changing," said Juan Carlos Valverde Campos, director of National University's Ecumenical School of Religious Studies. "Every day, there are fewer Catholics. It's time we had a country that was more inclusive and did not violate the rights of certain minority groups."

Yet, Chinchilla has given a strong indication that the country will maintain its ties to the Catholic Church, at least during her four-year term. A month after her Feb. 7 election, she established a commission to "stabilize the relationship between the next government and the Catholic Church," and she appointed a top legislator to oversee its formation.

"All signs indicate that President-elect Laura Chinchilla will work in collaboration with the Catholic Church," Valverde said. "This openly indicates that there is a good relation or at least an interest in a relationship, if not for religious purposes, at least for political."

Brother Mauricio Granados, chancellor of the Archdiocese of San Jose, said the church often conflicted with the government of Chinchilla's predecessor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Oscar Arias Sanchez.

"We can't deny it's been a strained relationship," Brother Granados said. Arias "never respected the position of the Catholic Church" when it opposed issues such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement or artificial contraception.

Archdiocesan officials have proposed an agreement that would solidify the Catholic Church's presence in Costa Rica. Brother Granados said a small mention in the constitution is not enough to ensure the church could continue its work in the country, and something stronger was needed.

"We are not looking to grow under this accord, but (to) achieve the necessary liberty and security in order for the church to fulfill its mission here," he said. The agreement would protect the Catholic Church in public spaces such as schools, prisons and hospitals.

Chinchilla had not responded to the proposal as of May 4.

In September 2009, a movement to create a secular state ended up losing the support of many legislators. Political analyst Carlos Denton, co-founder of the San Jose-based polling firm CID-Gallup, said savvy politicians knew what such a movement could do to a political campaign before February's election.

More than 70 percent of Costa Rica's population professes Catholicism.

"Supporting a secular state is not worth the political costs," said Denton. "And I don't see the legislative assembly in this administration undertaking the effort either. They are coming into office with other issues, and the church is not a priority."

Valverde, who backed the movement for a secular state last fall, also is aware of the political dynamic.

"We don't think it's the best time to launch another effort," he said. "But we haven't given up. We recognize this is a longer-term project."

He is supporting the movement to remove Catholicism as the country's official religion. He said he believes non-Catholics should not be required to pay taxes to the Catholic Church, nor should their money go to support Catholic education or upkeep on its buildings and missions.

"The idea of a secular state does not mean the introduction of atheism in Costa Rica," he said. "It means Costa Rica will be a country that is more inclusive and pays more attention to the people who have been marginalized."

Although the movement toward a secular state is still struggling to find a solid base of support among elected representatives, Denton said the Catholic Church has every reason to be concerned. He pointed to the declining number of Catholics in the country -- a 17 percent drop in the past 20 years -- and questioned whether the church will be able to maintain its foothold in the future.

"All of Central America will be Protestant by 2025," he predicted. "Already Catholics are the minority in Honduras (at 45 percent) and, in Guatemala, the number of Catholics is decreasing from 62 percent. Costa Rica won't be far behind." 

Source


What do you think ONTD_P? Live post of the inauguration Sunday y/n?

Also, need Costa Rica tag!

Tags: central america, christianity, costa rica, latin america, religion
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