SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | The Catholic Church is taking on a growing political role in opposing President Evo Morales, whom it accuses of seeking an "excessive concentration of power" in his bid to remake Bolivia as a socialist state.
The hostility is mutual, with Mr. Morales and officials in his government warning the church to stay out of politics.
While elsewhere in Latin America, the church has become identified with movements of the poor, in Bolivia, religious leaders are defending activists in the wealthiest part of the nation -- the eastern lowlands that hold natural gas, oil and other resources.
"The Catholic Church has become a syndicate of opposition to the government," Mr. Morales told supporters in a recent speech as tensions escalated over a January referendum on a proposed constitution. "The Catholic Church and the media are the only opposition I have left."
Threats and verbal attacks from both sides have escalated in recent days, after more than a dozen activists sought refuge from authorities in a church compound in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, the country's economic center and a bastion of opposition to Mr. Morales.
"Bolivia is becoming a country without God or law," Cardinal Julio Terrazas warned in one of his homilies over the Christmas holidays.
Cardinal Terrazas and other church leaders, mainly in the east, have been especially critical of the proposed constitution, a centerpiece of Mr. Morales' efforts.
"Its excessive concentration of power in the executive breaks the necessary balance and independence between the branches of government," said a document released by the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, a group of Catholic bishops, in March.
Mr. Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, was elected in 2005 on a pledge to gain central government control of the nation's natural resources.
Catholic leaders have been openly supportive of opposition protests, which are often announced by the ringing of church bells in Santa Cruz and other cities in the east. In May and June, the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Pando, Tarija and Beni held referendums in which a majority voted for autonomy. Clashes with government forces followed in September, and more than 30 people are accused of organizing violent protests.
"The government does not respect the law. People are being arrested illegally," said Auxiliary Bishop of Santa Cruz Sergio Gualberti. "Others got scared and asked for our protection."
The proposed constitution would place much of Bolivia's land and natural resources under the control of peasant cooperatives. It would also increase the central government's regulation of education and the media.
It reflects an effort by Mr. Morales to shift wealth from the east -- where businesses and huge estates are controlled by Bolivians of European descent -- to impoverished Indians in the Andean highlands.
The governors of Bolivia's four eastern provinces persuaded Cardinal Terrazas and other church leaders to act as guarantors of negotiations with Mr. Morales in September.
The talks resulted in some compromises before the constitutional text was submitted to Bolivia's Congress and approved, over opposition from eastern lawmakers.
Many leaders of Mr. Morales' ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party accuse the church of interfering at the local level.
One MAS activist in the Santa Cruz slum district known as Plan 300 said the local priest "comes with money" to support "resistance" against MAS efforts to organize in his parish. The activist asked not to be identified to avoid arrest.
Monsignor Gualberti denies that he is organizing politically in the district.
"The priest uses the money to build schools, neighborhood community centers, to set up a large complex that would include a church, sports center and educational facilities," Monsignor Gualberti said. "The church has no plans to destabilize the government."
Rural Development Minister Carlos Romero said the church has no business interfering in politics and that the government's goal is a formal separation between church and state.
"In all modern countries, the separation between church and state is delineated. This is what we are trying to materialize in Bolivia, where there is no adequate separation of functions," he said.
Presidency Minister Juan Ramon Quintana said in a recent TV interview that the head of the Santa Cruz civic committee - a wealthy businessman named Branko Marinkovic who supports autonomy for the region, is accused of leading September's protests and is now in hiding - "is taking refuge between the pillars of the church."
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