By Elisa Santafe
MADRID, Wednesday 3 November 2010 (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI is taking his worldwide battle against abortion and gay marriage to Spain, a Roman Catholic bastion that has raced to adopt laws abhorred by the Church.
Church leaders are touting the pope's visit this weekend as a defence of their most sacred beliefs from an onslaught of socially progressive legislation.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government angered the Church and many conservatives by legalising gay marriage and easing restrictions on abortion.
For a country where 73 percent of people say they are Catholic, down from 80 percent eight years ago, gay marriage laws in 2005 provoked public opposition but nothing on the scale of the anti-abortion movement.
A recent law easing restrictions on abortion unleashed far more heated opposition, sending tens of thousands of protesters into the streets in successive demonstrations over the past 18 months.
Only an economic crisis that brought a 20-percent jobless rate managed to brake the pace of reforms, forcing Zapatero to set his mind on recovery and shelve legislation to strictly separate Church and State.
Benedict XVI launches his November 6-7 visit in Santiago de Compostela, one of the holiest and most powerful sites of the Church in Europe drawing pilgrims for more than 1,000 years.
He then travels to Barcelona to consecrate the Sagrada Familia church, and bless the building of a new home for children with Down's Syndrome and other mental disabilities.
Leaders of the Church in Spain -- the Bishops' Conference -- cast the visit in the starkest terms against gay marriage and abortion.
When the Sagrada Famila was first planned in the late 19th century, they said in a statement, the Church "already warned that the natural and Christian family, based on marriage, constitutes the basic cell of society."
The press director of the Bishops' Conference, Isidro Catela, said the number of children with Downs Syndrome had declined because "a good number of them are eliminated before they are born."
The pope's visit to the construction of a new children's home in Barcelona, he said, was a way of defending the lives of all "whether or not they have greater or lesser intellectual capacity."
Spain's abortion law, brought in four months ago, allows abortion on demand up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, abortion in case of risk to the life and health of the mother until 22 weeks and abortion beyond that time with the consent of a medical committee if there is a risk of extremely serious or incurable disease of the foetus.
It is a law that would have allowed 30-year-old Gemma Botifoll to interrupt her pregnancy in Spain. But in 2008 when doctors detected that her foetus had serious deformations at eight-and-a-half months, she had to travel to Rennes in France for the operation.
"In Spain I felt terrible, I was not supported by anyone," she said in an interview. The operation was still paid for by Spain's health system in accordance with European Union laws.
The abortion and gay rights laws fed Spain's political tensions, too, hailed by the Socialist Party but denounced by the conservative Popular Party.
"Spain has become a benchmark of equality not only in Europe but the whole world," boasted Pedro Zerolo, the Socialist Party's secretary for relations with social movements and NGOs.
Zapatero bet on a more plural and diverse society, said Zerolo, who married his male partner shortly after the gay marriage law -- the third in Europe after the Netherlands and Belgium -- was adopted. In five years, some 20,000 gay couples have married in Spain.
The abortion and gay marriage laws are protested by the Popular Party, which has appealed both to the Constitutional Court. The party leader, Mariano Rajoy, has said he will reform them if elected.
Despite Church opposition to the laws, Zapatero has sought to cultivate better relations with the Vatican.
He recently postponed a proposed law on religious freedom that would have required the removal of crucifixes from public places, and an end to both Roman Catholic state funerals and the swearing-in of the prime minister before a crucifix.
Theologian Juan Jose Tamayo said Zapatero delayed the legislation for strategic and electoral reasons. With an economic crisis to fight, the government believes it is battling on enough fronts, he added. "They don't want to add more wood to the fire."