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 CNS Story:

MEXICO-OIL Apr-3-2008 (600 words) xxxi

Mexican bishops pulled into controversial oil debate

By Ioan Grillo
Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- The Catholic Church was pulled into a national debate over the future of the oil industry, as a Mexican Cabinet minister urged bishops to support a plan that would allow multinational companies to invest in Mexican energy.

Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino met behind closed doors with senior church officials April 1 at the annual meeting of the Mexican bishops' conference on the outskirts of Mexico City. Both the bishops and Mourino's office reported that the secretary said energy reform was urgent for Mexico's future prosperity.

Mourino "showed them a presentation about the situation in (government oil monopoly) Pemex," his office said in a statement. "He signaled the importance of society working together with the government to achieve the reforms the country needs."

In a news conference, senior bishops said that the minister had explained that investment was necessary for the wealth of future generations.

"We have heard the secretary and we trust that the powers of our union and the lawmakers will make the best decision for our country," said the Bishop Faustino Armendariz Jimenez of Matamoros.

The government's reform proposal is backed by international investors and U.S. and European oil companies keen to work on vast petroleum reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. The reformers argue that it if action is not taken, Mexico's oil production will drop sharply, affecting Mexican coffers and U.S. oil supplies. Pemex provides the U.S. with its third-highest source of foreign oil, after Saudi Arabia and Canada, and gives the Mexican government 40 percent of its income.

However, opposition politicians are leading a growing movement against the reform, which they argue would be selling out the nation's patrimony to North Americans and Europeans. When the oil was expropriated from foreign companies in 1938, Mexicans celebrated in the streets and it has since represented a source of the nation's sovereignty and strength.

The protests have been led by leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a fiery speaker who lost the 2006 presidential election to Mexican President Felipe Calderon by a whisker. Lopez Obrador has headed huge rallies with tens of thousands across the country and called for civil disobedience in defense of oil.

"If we allow private companies to come in, we would be left without any possibility of developing Mexico," Lopez Obrador told a crowd in Mexico City in March. "How long would it be before we stop being a nation and turn into a colony?"

The newspaper La Jornada, a strong supporter of Lopez Obrador, criticized the church officials for discussing oil with Mourino and said, "The bishops are taking on the media campaign over the future of Pemex."

In the meeting between Mourino and the church officials, the secretary also discussed the issue of religious freedom, according to the bishops and the government.

Senators in Calderon's National Action Party have proposed a reform to give clerics greater rights in the public sphere, overturning Mexican laws dating back to the revolution that ban the church in public education, politics and the media. Calderon is a strong Catholic and his father took up arms in the 1920s Cristero Rebellion, an uprising against the anti-clerical measures of the Mexican government. However, since taking office in December 2006, the president largely has avoided commenting on religion.

"We are going to go on talking about the rights we have in education and religious freedom," said Bishop Marcelino Hernandez Rodriguez of Orizaba. "We will not be priests and then second-class citizens."

END


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