MADRID: Five months after taking office, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, 44, is on a collision course with the country's influential Catholic Church.

In the clergy's view, the government's social programme reads like a checklist of horrors. After the approval of the draft legislation to make divorce speedier and cheaper, the relaxation of abortion laws and embryo research as well as the legalization of euthanasia are also being discussed.

The Socialists seem intent on attacking the very foundations of the Catholic Church's dominant position in Spain. They have withdrawn the former conservative government's plan to reintroduce compulsory religious instruction in schools, and have indicated they would like to end the church's state subsidies.

"There is no church campaign against the Socialist Party," bishops' conference spokesman Juan Antonio Martinez Camino said, but few people doubt there is such a campaign.

The church has called on Catholic MPs to vote against the reforms and made clear it would approve of street demonstrations.

The church has blasted most innovative aspects in the government's social policy, which is expected to amount to something of a social revolution and to rank Spain among the most liberal countries in Europe.

Zapatero made an energetic start by filling half his cabinet posts with women and by cracking down on domestic violence. "I'm not just anti-machismo, I'm a feminist," the premier said in a recent interview.

Making divorce easier "does not mean more freedom, but a higher failure rate", Martinez Camino said.

The church describes abortion as "a silent holocaust", euthanasia as "immoral and anti-social".

Church leaders equate Zapatero's enthusiasm for a "modern and secular" Spain with an attempt to destroy the country's "Christian roots".

Spain has been one of the world's most staunchly Catholic countries since the expulsion of Muslims half a millennium ago. The church still runs numerous schools and universities, and many politicians and other influential people belong to the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei.

Yet polls show that while some 80 per cent of Spaniards regard themselves as Catholics, only 35 per cent attend mass.

The overwhelming majority of young Spaniards ignore the church's conservative advice on issues such as pre-marital sex or contraception. Abortions increased from 54,000 in 1998 to 77,000 in 2002.

The rapid secularization which started after the 1975 death of conservative dictator Francisco Franco seems unstoppable, and other religions are also increasingly competing with Catholicism.

Immigration has brought at least half a million mainly Moroccan Muslims to Spain.

Smaller groups such as Protestants and Jews are also complaining about the privileges of the Catholic Church, which gets more than three billion euros (3.7 billion dollars) annually from the state through taxes collected from willing Catholics, direct and indirect subsidies.

Zapatero has shown sympathy for the principle of equality between religions, proposing to the United Nations an "alliance of civilizations" between the West and the Islamic world.

Zapatero's attitude could "prompt a strong rejection in a sector of society", the daily El Mundo warned, while the main opposition conservative Popular Party cancelled plans to withdraw an explicit reference to Christian values from its statutes.-dpa


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