Mexico's president, first lady pray for peace at holy site

REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- President Felipe Calderon and First Lady Margarita Zavala on Sunday appeared with their children at Mexico's most revered site for Roman Catholics, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and prayed for peace in a public display of devotion.

Calderon, a year from the end of his term, attended Mass at the church less than a week after the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, the deeply charged national symbol dating to the conquest of the Aztec empire and a unifying cultural icon today.

On Sunday, the first lady offered the third prayer of the Mass, saying, according to one report (link in Spanish), "In our family we have prepared this petition. We pray, Lord, for our dear Mexico. Give the Mexican nation the peace, hope and justice that it so needs."

Zavala also asked in prayer, "Touch with your love the hearts of the violent ones," a reference to the ongoing conflict embroiling the government, organized crime and paramilitary groups. News outlets later published photographs of the family crossing themselves in prayer.

The two are lifelong members of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, which was founded partly as a haven for devout Catholics during the long and aggressively secular rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Calderon has not shied away from referring to his religious ideology in public. Last year, he told U.S. journalist Charlie Rose in an interview that he expects to reunite with his father in heaven, in response to a question about whether the president thought his deceased father would approve of his government.

Calderon is the second PAN president to occasionally cross into religious territory while in office. His predecessor, Vicente Fox, sparked criticism in 2002 when he bowed and kissed the hand of Pope John Paul II during the pontiff's final trip to Mexico.

Sunday also marked the launch of campaigns of the three major parties in next year's presidential election and, in a way, the beginning of the end of Calderon's six years in office.

Since assuming the presidency in December 2006, amid chaos over disputed election results, the Calderon administration launched a military-led campaign against organized crime that has left at least 43,000 dead. Some peace activists here place the figure as high as 60,000.

Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City, speaking on Sunday, said there was a healthy separation of church and state in Mexico, and asked Mexicans to not give in to fear in face of threats from crime groups.

"Imagine if our president fell into fear," the bishop said.  

The sharp division that once existed between Mexico's PRI-led governments and the Catholic Church has blurred in recent years, said George W. Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to visit Mexico for the first time next spring. He has already met presidential front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto during an audience at Vatican City in 2009.

Grayson noted that the church has had known ties to the country's drug cartels, most notably in the practice of some drug lords of funding construction or renovations of local churches. "So the church has contact, and maybe they can reach out and touch a capo's heart," he said. 

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-- Daniel Hernandez

 
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