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Argentine Jew Fights Religion Law Blocking His Way to Governorship

January 15, 2003
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A Jewish politician in Argentina is challenging a law that requires the governor of an Argentine province to take a Christian oath.

“I never thought, in the 21st century, we’d see something like this,” said Jose Alperovich, a federal senator who polls say is likely to become the next governor of the province of Tucuman.

Article 80 of the Tucuman Constitution says the governor must swear allegiance to “God, the Fatherland and the Christian saints.”

The province, which has 1.2 million inhabitants, is divided over whether Article 80 should be abolished.

On Sunday, the main local newspaper, La Gaceta, published the results of a poll asking people whether only Catholics should be able to become provincial governor.

Fifty-three percent of respondents said there should be no such requirement; 45 percent said it was important that the governor be Catholic.

The country as a whole had a similar requirement less than a decade ago: Before the constitution was amended in 1994, the president of Argentina had to be a Catholic.

Three weeks ago, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Tucuman, Msgr. Luis Villalba, told a local TV station that he supports Article 80.

“We must follow the constitution to the last detail. Our country is falling apart because no one follows or respects the law,” Villalba said.

DAIA, the political umbrella organization for Argentina’s Jewish community, expressed concern about Villalba’s statements.

A few days later, former legislator Exequiel Avila Gallo backed Villalba and attacked DAIA.

“DAIA is an institution that belongs to the Israeli government. It has no moral authority to interfere in national problems,” Avila Gallo said.

This prompted DAIA to issue a statement saying that Avila Gallo’s comments reflected “a huge ignorance” and carried “connotations of anti-Semitic prejudice.”

To counter Avila Gallo’s charge, DAIA’s statement also indicated that the organization was founded in 1935 to work for democracy and pluralism in Argentina.

Article 80 is not the only such law in Argentina, DAIA official Jaime Salamon told JTA in a phone interview.

“Tucuman is not the only province with such restrictions. We live in a country where the northern part still has a very conservative Catholicism,” he said.

Another province, Santiago del Estero, still requires the governor and vice governor to be Catholic.

The many years that Argentina lived under military governments did not contribute much to religious pluralism, Salamon added.

A year ago, DAIA had to work with officials in the province of Catamarca to prevent Catholicism from being an obligatory subject in local schools, he said.

Alperovich has served as a federal senator since December 2001. For two years before that he served as economics minister in Tucuman, becoming the first Jew to hold a ministerial post in the province.

He told JTA that polls show him leading in the race for governor. Elections are expected to take place in March or April.

“The people of Tucuman are supporting me against those political operatives who want to keep me out of the arena,” he said.

But Alperovich may have an additional hurdle to overcome before he can become provincial governor.

A local prosecutor, Esteban Jerez, told JTA that proceedings may be brought against Alperovich for diverting funds that were to be used for repairs at a school.

Alperovich denied the charges, saying “the school is being rebuilt using all the funds in question.”

The charges are politically motivated, he added.

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