Mexicos Jews cautiously eye first religious president

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MEXICO CITY — As religion mixes with politics in a way Mexico has not seen in its modern history, the Latin American nation's Jews are watching their new president closely.

When Vicente Fox is inaugurated today, he will become Mexico's first openly religious Roman Catholic president in more than a century: After more than 70 years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party — known by its Spanish initials PRI — was voted out of office. Fox, of the conservative National Action Party, known by the acronym PAN, beat Francisco Labastida of the PRI in July's vote.

Publicly, Mexican Jews tend to keep silent when it comes to politics. When Fox held a meeting with Jewish leaders soon after he was elected, one newspaper called the meeting "discreet" and no names of Jewish leaders appeared in print.

"There are about 50,000 to 60,000 Jews in Mexico, but we don't have a lot of political representation," said Abram Shamai, a Jewish businessman. "We just want to be left alone."

The habit of keeping a low profile may have come from the 1970s, when then-President Luis Echeverria spearheaded the 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.

However, prior to then, the constitution of 1857 separated church and state, and other laws removed marriage and divorce from church jurisdiction.

Even tougher limits were imposed on the church in 1917 after the Mexican Revolution.

And in this country, where 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, religion has been officially invisible since 1929. Priests and nuns were not allowed to wear their clerical garb in public, and religious leaders were restricted from interfering in politics. Political leaders kept their religious practices from public view.

Religious restrictions gradually faded in practice, and a 1992 law formally ended most of them.

Since then, church and state in Mexico have sparred over just how far priests can go to influence politics under a reform that ended many of the laws imposed on clergy.

But laws still ban religious involvement in politics — a ban that was constantly tested during Fox's campaign in which religion played a prominent role.

The media repeatedly showed him going to Mass and he has pushed the limits of the church's prominent new role in politics. He once displayed a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, at a campaign rally.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community still keeps a low profile partly because several of its members have "disappeared," either kidnapped or killed.

"Jews have been targeted perhaps because they are viewed as wealthy," said one member of the Jewish community who wished to remain anonymous.

In fact, one of the major subjects on the agenda when Fox, 58, met with Jewish leaders was safety. Fox said many Jewish concerns are national concerns.

"The Jews voted for Fox along the same lines as the rest of Mexicans did because we share many of the same problems and hopes," said Esther Shabot, a columnist who writes about Israeli issues for a leading Mexican newspaper.

While many Jews voted for Fox, they remain concerned about Fox's conservative political party, considered to have an allegiance with the Catholic Church.

Soon after the election, the central state of Guanajuato, where Fox had been governor, proposed banning abortion in cases of rape.

Abortion is generally outlawed in Mexico, but just about every state has permitted abortion in cases of coercion. There was such an outcry against the measure that the current governor sent the bill back to the state congress for further study, which, in essence, serves as a veto.

Many fear that Catholicism will become a far stronger force in Mexico because of the PAN's conservative religious leanings.

Fox himself has said that while he is religious, he would not impose his spiritual views on the nation. He has also called for an end to aggression against people of different faiths and promises to push an initiative to guarantee more religious liberty for all.

"Jews are afraid of intolerance," said Vivian Antaki, dean of Endicott College in Mexico City. "While to many the PAN means Christian intolerance, Fox has promised religious freedom and a continuation of secular education…He is in no way hand in glove with the church."

Businessman Abram Shamai agreed. "We believe that Fox is not representative of the PAN. He's divorced and doesn't attend Mass frequently. We're not talking Joe Lieberman here."

Mexican Jews like what they view as Fox's pro-business position. He was an executive of Coca-Cola for Mexico and Central America and also ran his own agricultural and shoemaking businesses.

As governor, he was known for cutting bureaucratic red tape to help businesses export their products more easily.

"We are all very happy there is a change and hopefuly…he will reduce corruption and create a better climate for investments," said Richard Pick, a textiler here for 40 years.