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Divorce issue strains church-state relations in Argentina. Proposed law part of Alfons'in effort to `modernize' country

Argentina's most venerated symbol of the Roman Catholic faith, a statue of the Virgin of Lujan, was set atop a pickup truck this past weekend and brought the 43 miles from her shrine to the capital. It was only the second time in 350 years the statue has been moved.

The purpose: to lead a 50,000-strong march to the presidential palace to protest a government plan to introduce divorce legislation in parliament later this month. The march illustrates the Catholic hierarchy's intensified efforts here to short-circuit moves toward legalizing divorce.

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In the aftermath of the demonstration, any divorce bill seems likely to bog down despite widespread popular sentiment in favor of the measure. A recent opinion poll suggested that two-thirds of Argentina's 28 million people, 90 percent of whom are Catholic, are in favor of providing avenues for legal divorce. Separation already exists under civil law, and is recognized by the church, but nullification of marriage and remarriage are prohibited.

Legal specialists say Argentina's law is stricter than that of the Catholic Church itself, which at least allows annulment of a marriage under certain circumstances.

Up to 2 million Argentines are believed to be part of new de facto marriages in the absence of legal divorce. In addition, there are estimated to be half a million children who have been born to unmarried parents, many of whom have left their original spouses but are unable to remarry because of the existing law.

It has been an aim of the government of President Ra'ul Alfons'in, which came to power in 1983, to ``modernize'' Argentina. A law which legalizes divorce is considered part of this program. The government has not, however, taken a formal stand in the debate, saying instead that the issue must be decided by each legislator.

Pro-divorce legislators from the ruling Radical Party, allied with progressive elements of the opposition Peronist Party, have come under attack from the country's spiritual leaders.

Bishop Emilio Ognenovich, head of the church's commission on the family, has accused the congressional deputies promoting the divorce bill of being ``destabilizers of the democratic system,'' because they did not make divorce an electoral issue in 1983 and yet are now seeking to legislate in favor of it. He said the divorce proposals constitute ``a generalized attack on the family'' and are supported by groups linked to ``foreign ideologies and drug traffickers.''

Such criticism from the clergy has caused irritation in government circles. Although President Alfons'in has remained tactfully quiet on the issue, other Radical Party leaders are now hinting at the possibility of holding a national referendum.

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A move toward a referendum would break a ``gentlemen's agreement'' that was made earlier this year in return for the church agreeing not to involve itself publicly in the divorce issue.

Some critics charge that the church's attempts to influence the parliamentary debate, scheduled for the end of July, represents a move toward wider involvement by the church in the country's political affairs. The church is known to be building links with the more conservative sectors of the trade union movement.

The most conservative sectors of Argentine society found common cause in last weekend's anti-divorce march. Present were not only clerics -- with some notable absences -- but also leaders from the right wing of the Peronist opposition, serving military officers, and even members of the disgraced military regime that preceded the present government.

The forces against legalized divorce in Argentina have clearly demonstrated their ability to mobilize and ally themselves around the issue. The government now has to decide whether it is worth fighting the matter in parliament, taking it to a referendum (a similar recent experience in Ireland was not encouraging), or quietly letting the issue drop.

Interestingly, it was a Peronist government that once before introduced divorce in Argentina in 1954. The law survived only one year.

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