by Peter Stanford IN JULY 1977 five prelates from the southern Andes region of Peru signed a radical statement caning for a new social order based on the interests of the majority. Their outspoken demands, described as "Maoist" by the then military president, attracted' widespread support throughout Peru, at that time paralysed by a general strike.
Today only two of those five prelates are still alive; the other three have died in a series of mysterious road accidents. The most recent death, on February 9, was that of Maryknoll Mgr Albert Koenigsknecht, head of the Juli prelature (Catholic Herald March 7).
Mgr Koenigsknecht, who had worked in the high Andes region around Lake Titicaca for 38 years, died on his way back from defending two churchmen accused by local landowners of stealing religious objects from the Church.
He spoke at the trial, hours before his death on an isolated road, of landowners falsifying information in an attempt to discredit the Church's outspoken stance on peasant land rights. The American Maryknoll had been the subject of death threats in the past.
Within a month of each other in May and June of 1982, Archbishop Luis Vallejos of Cuzco and Frenchman, Bishop Luis Dalle of Ayaviri both died in road accidents. The archbishop had driven to bless a new road. On his way back the brakes failed in his car and it plunged off a hillside in this mountainous region.
Bishop Dalle was travelling on a bus which crashed. His half naked body was found near the scene of the accident.
Widespread concern was expressed about the two deaths at the time in Peru — by the liberation theologian Fr Gustavo Gutierrez among others. The basic Christian communities from around the country organised a pilgrimage to the site of the deaths.
Mgr Koenigsknecht's death has brought doubts about the two earlier deaths back to the surface. Those have been heightened by the death in January of Bishop Julio Gonzalez, a former bishop of Puno — again in a motor accident.
Bishop Gonzalez was not among the five bishops who signed, on July 10, a document entitled "Taking up the Cry and the Aspirations of the Poor". The other two signators were Canadian Mgr Albano Quinn, head of the Sicuani prelature and Bishop Jesus Calderon of Puno. Both men have received death threats in the past.
Mgr Quinn, from his home high up in the Andes, told the Catholic Herald by telephone this week that to his mind there
was no suggestion that the deaths were anything else than accidents.
However, the fact remains that the series of deaths has been convenient for those who objected to their message. All five prelates came from the High Andes region of southern Peru, the poorest area of the country. Some 13,000 feet above sea level, this is a region of tremendous poverty, with enormous tracts of land held by a few families, while the vast majority live in semi-feudal servitude and starvation.
The Church in the region has' taken a lead in helping to establish co-operatives, giving them legal and technical assistance, and protecting them from the wrath of the landowners, who wished to destroy them.
In June 1977 a package of price rises, imposed by the military government of General Francisco Morales Bermudez brought resistance to the regime's austerity measures to new heights. In the town of Juliaca, in the centre of the southern Andes region, 13 people were killed and five wounded in demonstrations.
It was in this context that the five bishops made their appeal. A week later a general strike broke out. One of the main documents by protesters used was the bishops' statement.
Describing the lack of basic freedom as "a rejection of God", which compels the Church to side with the oppressed, they denounced the "sought after terrorisation of the people", "the economic system which does not take account of the interests of the majority" and "the fact that a privileged minority unload the weight of the economic crisis on the shoulders of the poor".
Their use of biblical ,inspiration to justify social and political action created a precedent throughout Peru in a time of crisis. It was widely discussed in the many Christian communities throughout the land.
Mgr Quinn in Sicuani and Bishop Calderon continue their work in defence of the poor. But Archbishop Vallejos was replaced as head of the Cuzco archdiocese by Archbishop Alcides Mendoza Castro, a former chaplain to the army.
Archbishop Castro has not kept up his predecessor's habit. of touring the countryside and seeing conditions at first hand.
In March of 1984 he allowed a squadron of army officers to inspect a archdiocesan farm and training centre. When the officers were challenged over their rights to interrogate workers at the centre, they were told that the army was working at the "express command" of the archbishop. The farm has since severed its linked with the archdiocese.