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TENSION IN CATALONIA

Artur Mas: “Catalonia will not survive without its own state”

Regional leader accuses PP of fascist attitude in reply to minister's 'hispanicize' comment

Catalan bishops give blessing to sovereignty drive

After a week of hearing various members of the Popular Party (PP) explain how secession from Spain would spell disaster for Catalonia, regional premier Artur Mas accused the central government of having a Falangist vision of the country.

"They think we should explain the history of Spain the way they would like to explain it themselves," said the leader of the nationalist CiU bloc which governs Catalonia. "Catalan schools teach the history of Spain as a multinational state, not like 'one, great and free'," he said in a reference to the famous slogan used by the dictator Franco to support a centralized, homogenous country.

His words came shortly after Spain's culture minister, José Ignacio Wert, stated the need to "hispanicize Catalan schoolchildren" to make up for a perceived pro-nationalist bias in the school curriculum. The CiU spokesman in Congress, Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, also jumped into the fray, saying that "maybe what Spain needs is to be Catalanized a bit."

It was just the latest episode in an escalating war of words over a hypothetical secession of the northeastern region, whose assembly recently gave the green light to a referendum to ask Catalans whether they would like independence from Spain.

The Church will be "on the side of the Catalan people if they opt for independence from Spain"

Mas on Sunday took Madrid's disaster argument and turned it on its head, arguing that independence is "the only possible road to ensure the survival of Catalonia as a people."

Nationalists blame Madrid for the "financial asphyxia" that is allegedly causing Catalonia's economic woes, and say a new fiscal pact is necessary to ensure Catalonia is allowed to raise more of its own revenues. In late August, Catalonia said it would have to tap into a regional bailout, prompting ratings agency Standard & Poor's to reduce its credit rating to junk status.

Although the issue of independence has been a backdrop to Madrid-Barcelona relations since the advent of democracy, it has taken center stage since September 11, when a massive pro-sovereignty demonstration took place in Barcelona. Mas has taken the reins of this renewed secessionist push and called early elections on November 25 to obtain voter support for his referendum, which he pledges to hold within his four-year term, with or without permission from Madrid. "We will hold it within legality, whether we have to seek it in Spain, in Europe or the world," he said.

The matter is polarizing society at a time of growing unrest over the economic crisis. Non-nationalist Catalans made a show of force on October 12 with a Barcelona march of their own, while Catalan bishops said that the Catalan Catholic Church will be "on the side of the Catalan people if they opt for independence from Spain."

Meanwhile, the president of the powerful media group Planeta, José Manuel Lara, warned that playing with pro- independence sentiment was a "dangerous game" which "will cause irreparable damage to both sides."