CHURCH MOUNTS REARGUARD ACTION AS CHILE VOTES TO ALLOW DIVORCE
By Duncan Campbell
Chile, one of the few countries in the world where divorce is banned, is set to change the law in a move hailed as a major challenge to hypocrisy (2003). This month the senate voted 33-13 to end the law banning divorce. The vote came only after five years of debate. Cecilia Perez, the minister for women's affairs, described it as a "historic step."
The bill could finally become law next year although the bat tle is not yet over. The Roman Catholic church has been warning politicians of their responsibilities to the church, some conservative senators have already said they will seek amendments to water down the bill, and young members of a rightwing Christian pressure group, Family Action, disrupted the senate debate with furious protests.
Chilean couples separate and start new relationships with much the same frequency as anywhere else in South America but until now have either had to live "in sin" or undergo a torturous annulment process.
In 2001 a total of 6,898 such nullifications were granted, most of them, it is generally accepted, on bogus grounds. The main ground is that the addresses given by a husband and wife at the time of the original marriage were false. To prove this, four witnesses are required to swear in front of a judge that the couple seeking to end their marriage were not living where they claimed at the time.
Writing in the daily El Mercurio, Catherine Lizama suggested that all the parties involved in this process, including the judges and witnesses, were "actors in a comedy". She pointed out that the witnesses were essentially giving false evidence.
Prices for securing an annulment vary but can cost around £380, five times the country's minimum monthly wage. Making divorce legal would end the annulment charade.
Opinion polls show that around 70% of Chileans back a change. A straw poll outside a church in the Providencia district of Santiago seemed to indicate that in the capital at least there was broad support.
"I think it would be good to have this change because at the moment we are living in a hypocritical situation," said one churchgoer, Miria Roncone.
"Personally, I believe in God but also in human rights." Among her friends and relatives, she said, the majority supported a change.
Sofia Pereira, 64, said she was in favour of a new law. "People should have the chance to get divorced," she said.
Her son David, 33, said he also strongly backed ending the current state of affairs. "At the moment, there is too much hypocrisy," he said.
One of the arguments for change is to legalise the position of children born into relationships of couples who have not been able to obtain an annulment.
Until 1996 children born out of wedlock did not have the same rights as those born within a marriage. The latest annual official statistics for 2001 indicate that 39% of births in Chile were to unmarried couples.
Family Action, whose slogan is "for a strong, Christian Chile", is leading the protests against the changes. The Catholic church has also reiterated its view that "those who God has joined together" should not be separated.
Only a few countries, including Malta and the Philippines, still do not recognise divorce.