- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

VALENCIA, Spain — The streets of Valencia are decked in flags of papal yellow and a 100-foot-high cross dominates the skyline as Spain’s third city prepares to greet Pope Benedict XVI. who is visiting to promote Roman Catholic family values.

The Catholic Church in Spain is at loggerheads with a socialist government which, the Vatican believes, is determined to break free from the religious ties of its past.

In the past two years the socialists have implemented a domestic program of radical legislation, including marriage and adoption rights for homosexuals and a relaxation of the divorce laws.

Laws on abortion, in vitro fertilization, embryonic-stem-cell research and euthanasia have also been loosened. The government has announced an end to mandatory Catholic education in schools, and the introduction of classes in Islam and Judaism.

The changes have left the nation’s church leaders reeling and caused alarm among officials at the Vatican, including the pope. Last month a hard-hitting Vatican document branded such measures an “eclipse of God.”

This afternoon, the 79-year-old pontiff will meet with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the pioneer of the social reforms that have so angered the Catholic Church.

“The time has come to respect the sexual choices of every individual, to offer a lay vision of society in which no one imposes his beliefs,” the prime minister said on taking office in March 2004.

As a result, Spain is now viewed as the principal battleground in the Vatican’s campaign to combat the “creeping secularization” of Europe.

In less than a generation, Spain has passed from being a bastion of Catholicism under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco to a predominantly lay society, with disaffection greatest among the young.

A survey of people between ages 15 and 24 by the Santa Maria Foundation found that 49 percent declared themselves Catholic, compared with 77 percent in 1994.

The archbishop of Valencia, Agustin Garci-a-Gasco, said he believed the pope’s presence would encourage Spaniards back into the fold by focusing on “the protection of traditional family values.”

The tension between the Vatican and the Spanish government is reflected in the streets. Those who oppose the papal visit have staged protests and sought to take down the papal banners and replace them with less-welcoming messages.

Many, though, have been caught up in the religious fervor. Valencian bookshops have almost doubled their sales of doctrinal publications, with many reporting sellouts of the pope’s biography, “A Closer Look.”

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