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In their landmark book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman devote a chapter to the media’s unbalanced coverage of the murder of one priest in Poland in 1984 as compared to the coverage of the 72 religious killed throughout Latin America between 1964 and 1978, the killing of 23 religious in Guatemala between 1980 and 1985, the murder of Archbishop Romero of San Salvador in 1980 and the rape and murder of the 4 U.S. Church women in El Salvador in 1980. In short, the murder of the one Polish priest — the perpetrators of which were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison — received significantly more coverage than all of the latter killings, which almost invariably remain unsolved and unpunished, combined.
Meanwhile, there has been almost no media coverage of the killings of the “two bishops, 79 priests, eight men and women religious, as well as three seminarians” killed in Colombia alone between 1984 and 2011 – this, according to the Episcopal Conference of Colombia. (1) The Episcopal Conference of Colombia publicly announced this grave tally in the fall of 2011 upon the murder of the sixth priest killed in 2011 alone. One of the priests killed in 2011 was Father Reynel Restrepo Idarraga, the pastor of the town of Marmato, who was murdered by presumed paramilitaries in retaliation for his vocal defense of Marmato against the attempt of the Canadian mining company, Gran Colombia Gold, which to this day is still attempting to seize the land of the entire town and convert into a gold mine. The Colombian Bishops attributed the rash of killings in 2011 to “the courageous commitment of our priests to the prophetic denunciation of injustice and the cause of the poorest in the country.”
The number of priests killed in Colombia since 1984 just climbed to 80 with the murder of Father Luis Alfredo Suarez Salazar on Feb. 2, 2013 by two unknown assailants in the northern Colombian city of Ocana. (2)
Then, on February 13, 2013, there was an assassination attempt against another Catholic priest. The target of the attack was Father Alberto Franco, a member of the Inter-Church Commission of Justice & Peace (CIJP), an organization created in 1988 pursuant to the resolution of the Conference of Religious Superiors of Colombia which aspired “[t]o promote and encourage the Christian prophetic signs which are present in religious communities, through the creation of a Commission of Justice and Peace which will channel and disseminate information and protests throughout the country.” (3) As Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., a founding member of the CIJP, relates in The Genocidal Democracy, while the Colombian Catholic Conference of Bishops “did not approve of this initiative and placed obstacles in its path,” 25 Catholic provincials nonetheless went ahead with the formation of the CIJP. (4)
Father Alberto Franco (courtesy of CIJP)
As Father Giraldo explains, the first and continuing project of the CIJP has been “to gather and disseminate information about the victims of human rights violations, the right to life, in particular.” Not surprisingly, this project has made the CIJP a constant target of threats and violence, particularly from the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies. Father Alberto Franco himself has been the target of threats and surveillance for some time now, culminating in the attempt upon his life on Februrary 13, in which assailants fired three shots into the windshield of Father Franco’s car. Luckily, Father Franco had not yet entered the car and therefore escaped unharmed. Meanwhile, Father Franco, along with 17 other members of the CIJP, remain, by the Colombian government’s own measures, under “extraordinary risk” of attack.
According to a statement sent in support of the CIJP signed by 130 organizations,
We consider these threats to be a direct result of CIJP’s work on land restitution and their efforts to expose state, military, and business responsibility in illegal land grabs, threats, and the violation of human rights before national and international courts. The most recent threats occurred days after Father Franco informed the press that officials of ex-President Alvaro Uribe’s government were involved in the displacement and illegal occupation of the collective territories of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó. That same week, there was a hearing on the case of Marino López and others in Cacarica before the Inter-American Human Rights Court.
We have observed that the Afro-descendant, indigenous, and campesino communities that CIJP accompanies are also attacked for defending their land rights. In December 2012, we received first-hand information of the presence of many uniformed and armed paramilitaries in Curvaradó, in addition to the threat of an imminent massacre. On various occasions, we have expressed our concern regarding the attacks and threats against María Ligia Chavera and Enrique Petro, two emblematic leaders in the land restitution process in Curvaradó.
Of course, as I have written about at great length before, the “land grabs” which the CIJP are denouncing are only accelerating due to the free trade agreements between Colombia and the U.S. and Canada which are promoting the increased exploitation of land by multi-national mining and agricultural companies – companies which regularly use the Colombian military and paramilitaries to clear the land they covet of the residents who live there.
However, in the midst of the economic causes of the repression against individuals such as Father Franco, one also cannot forget the very real spiritual and religious convictions which motivate Father Franco and others like him to risk their lives to defend the poor, and one cannot ignore the commitment of those attacking such individuals to eradicate such convictions. Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., has indeed recently published a book (in Spanish only) which details the spiritual aspect of this struggle.
That book, The Deaths That Illuminate Life, sets forth the stories of 35 Colombians – including bishops, priests, nuns, religious laity and even a child — who Father Giraldo considers to be modern Christian martyrs. (5) In Father Giraldo’s words, they were “witnesses of Christian values objectively: men and women who heroically endured torture and death to the save the lives of others, or for refusing to become collaborators with criminal agencies, or because they joined groups and organizations where they sought to realize in some way their militant option for justice and solidarity.”
Comparing these modern martyrs to the early martyrs of the first three centuries of the Church, Father Giraldo does not mince words about their common executioners – the prevailing Empires at the time (the Roman and U.S. Empires, respectively).
Thus, Father Giraldo explains that, just as in the time of the Roman Empire Christians would naturally find themselves to be “subversives” in that they were compelled to deny the Emperor as their “Lord,” so too must modern Christians in Latin America find themselves at odds with their neo-colonial oppressors. As he writes,
To confess Christ, in this context, has meaning and truth only in the margins of a historic commitment to the liberation of the oppressed which explains an inescapable confrontation with the oppressors, “some of whom are those who say they are Christians,” that is why there are today Christians tortured and killed in the name of “the democratic freedoms”, in the name of the “market economy”, in the name of “Christian western civilization”, in the name of “national security”, on behalf of the “defense of the society against atheistic ideologies”, etc. The Christian label provides no clue in revealing the roots of the conflict, which cause death; these causes can only be discerned through an in-depth review of the practice of the faith, confronted with its challenging context, and taking into account that the Christian character of this praxis, tends to be refused, systematically, by all those that are in some degree of collusion with the interests of the oppressors.
Today there is no longer the idol of the Roman Emperor, in whose altars was shed the Blood of the first Christians, but if there is, being beefed up and omnipresent, secularized the idol of the market economy, in whose altars is sacrificed, and blinded with frantically, the life and dignity of millions of human beings, legitimizing the bloodshed abundant in the first and second blood: the insurgents of the oppressed and those who sympathized with them.
To this day, I cannot get over the irony, and indeed the shock, at the realization that it is in fact the U.S. – the professed protector of democracy and indeed Christian values in the world – which is the entity so bent on destroying the roots of true Christianity in Latin America, for it is a philosophy that so profoundly calls into question the U.S.’s true values which revolve around the worship of wealth and power. And so, it is the U.S. which, since 1962, has cultivated the very death squads which haunt the Church of the poor in Latin America, and specifically in Colombia. (6)
And, it is indeed the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), which continues to train thousands of repressive Latin American military forces, which, as Noam Chomsky explains, has bragged about its role in destroying Liberation Theology (the Christian philosophy which advocates “the preferential treatment for the poor”) in Latin America. As Chomsky has explained, “[o]ne of its advertising points is that the U.S. Army [School of the Americas] helped defeat liberation theology, which was a dominant force, and it was an enemy for the same reason that secular nationalism in the Arab world was an enemy – it was working for the poor.” (7) Thankfully, the SOA has not been as thoroughly successful as it has advertised in this regard, and that brave souls like Father Giraldo and Father Franco continue to risk martyrdom in order to defend the poor and dispossessed in Latin America.
In truth, I stopped being a practicing Catholic some time ago, but I continue to hold dear the philosophy of the “preferential treatment of the poor,” and I honor those in Latin America who continue to exhibit the courage – courage I have yet to find in myself – to risk their lives every day in carrying out this key tenet of Liberation Theology.
Finally, I leave you with these words, which always make me smile, of the “Red Bishop” who said mass in Mexico City for the Veterans of Peace convoy I travelled with to Nicaragua in 1988 to bring humanitarian aid to aid the Sandinista revolution. In his homily he said that, “to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, you must follow his disciples on earth: Saint Fidel Castro, Saint Daniel Ortega.” These are not words one will hear very often anymore, but I am not embarrassed to say that they are words that I have taken to heart. In the end, I have concluded that, to be a person of decency by any measure, one must join with the Davids of the Third World — including Hugo Chavez as well who just donated heating oil to hundreds of thousands of America’s poor for the 8thyear running — who are fighting for independence and economic justice against the Goliath in which we happen to live.
Daniel Kovalik is a human and labor rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh. He teaches international human rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
(1) See the message of the Episcopal Conference of Colombia here: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/global-issues/latin-america-caribbean/colombia/upload/translation-colombian-bishops-reject-priest-s-murder.pdf
(3) To send a message of protest in support of Father Franco, go to: http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5436/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=12935
(4) You can read The Genocidal Democracy on-line, along with a wonderful introduction by Noam Chomsky, at Father Giraldo’s website: http://www.javiergiraldo.org/IMG/pdf/Colombia_The_Genocidal_Democracy.pdf
(5) This book can be read in Spanish here: http://www.javiergiraldo.org/IMG/libros/Aquellas_Muertes.pdf