In most countries, churches are places of sanctuary—in El Salvador, they have become places of savagery. Last week, armed men attacked the Roman Catholic Jesuit university in the country’s capital of San Salvador, murdering six priests and two women. Since then, government security forces have raided churches and detained at least 40 church workers, many of them foreigners, according to the human rights group Americas Watch. Only hours after the Jesuits were murdered, Lutheran Pastor Brian Rude of Calgary and 11 other foreigners were detained by national guardsmen who stormed a Lutheran church in San Salvador. Rude, who was released a day later on the condition that he leave the country, said last week that he fears security forces are preparing for a wave of repression. “I have an escape route,” he said before leaving El Salvador, tears welling in his eyes, “but I feel I am leaving [my Salvadoran colleagues] trapped in hell.”
Some members of the armed forces and the
country’s ruling National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party have branded church workers as leftist subversives because churches have advocated better living conditions for the poor and defended the rights of peasants and workers to form unions and grassroots organizations. But Alfredo Cristiani, who was elected president in March, told Maclean ’s last week that the actions taken against church workers in recent weeks were “due to the extreme fluidity of the situation” as leftist rebels battled government forces throughout the country. And he said that “at no time was [there] religious persecution.” Cristiani added that he will pursue a thorough investigation into the killings of the six Jesuit priests.
Conservative: The Catholic church in El Salvador has historically been allied with the country’s landed gentry. To the poor, it preached passive acceptance of life’s difficulties and hope for the afterlife. But in the 1960s, church workers, especially younger priests in the countryside, began speaking up for the
rights of the poor. By 1977, when Oscar Arnulfo Romero was appointed archbishop, some unknown groups began circulating leaflets with the slogan “Be a patriot, kill a priest.” Romero himself had been considered a conservative. But human rights abuses by right-wing death squads, including the murder of one of Romero’s close friends, clearly had an impact on the archbishop. In his weekly sermons and writings, Romero became increasingly strident, denouncing the government and military for failing to halt the activities of death squads. In March, 1980, a day after he issued an appeal to soldiers to disobey “sinful” orders from their commanders, Romero was assassinated. His killer has never been apprehended.
The Christian Democratic government of José Napoleón Duarte, in power from 1984 until Cristiani assumed the presidency earlier this year, pledged to implement social programs such as land reform. And Romero’s successor, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, was less critical of the government during that period. Meanwhile, church members continued to work with the poor, helping communities set up food co-operatives, lecturing on preventive health care and assisting people to rebuild homes destroyed in the civil war.
But human rights groups say that abuses have increased since the right-wing ARENA party came to power. And last week, Rivera y Damas said that there was a “strong indication” that the six Jesuits had been murdered “by members of the armed forces or people in intimate connivance with them.”
Harassment: Although 90 per cent of the country’s five-million population is Catholic, the Lutheran, Episcopalian, Mennonite and Baptist churches are also active and have been the targets of harassment. On Nov. 20, armed national guardsmen arrested 17 people, including seven foreigners, at the San Juan Evangelista Episcopalian Church in San Salvador. And during Rude’s detention, a Treasury Police officer accused the Lutheran church of collaborating with leftist rebels. A soft-spoken 33year-old who has administered an orphanage near San Salvador for the past year, Rude flatly denied the charge.
Rev. Michael Czerny, a Jesuit priest from Toronto who attended the funeral of the slain Jesuits in San Salvador on Nov. 19, said that the military appeared to be deliberately targeting foreigners over the past two weeks. Added Czerny: “People are terribly afraid that this is part of a strategy to get foreigners out of the country and then, when the coast is clear, to unleash retaliation on the population.” But the Catholic auxiliary bishop in San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, held talks with the government and leftist rebels last week in an effort to arrange a ceasefire. And he insisted that “roads are still open” for negotiations to end the conflict. Clearly, church leaders intend to face the potentially fatal dangers involved in remaining at the centre of the violence in El Salvador.
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