Will Pope John Paul go ahead with his trip to Chile? Peter Stanford examines the dilemmas involved
POPE John Paul described the exiling of Bishop Pablo Vega from his native Nicaragua as "an almost incredible act" which "evokes the dark ages of actions taken against the Church".
No official response from Rome to the deportation of the three European priests from Chile last week has yet been heard. However, senior Vatican advisers are now questioning whether the cancellation of the papal trip, scheduled for next March, might make a suitable response.
The heightened tensions of a state of siege in the troubled South American country is a further factor weighing on their minds.
Frs Pierre DuBois, a Belgian, and Jaime Lancelot and Daniel Caruette, both French, were detained in the sweep of arrests that followed an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the life of Chile's military dictator for the past 13 years, Augusto Pinochet.
Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno, Archbishop of Santiago, made a last minute plea on their behalf, but in vain. The General has little time for the Church of his childhood.
He formally left the Catholic Church recently in protest at its close ties with an opposition coalition demanding a return to Chile's democratic traditions.
As the three priests were put on a plane for Rio de Janeiro, no-one was clear what the charges against them were.
But the General made his motives obvious a few hours later, when he told a rally, gathered to celebrate his 13 years in power, that he would never retreat in the face of his opponents — the Church, the opposition — "the same people who tried to transform Chile (13 years ago) into another Cuba" — and erstwhile western allies who "prefer to ignore the dangers of Marxist totalitarianism" while a war rages in Chile, "carried out by an ideological empire without our borders".
The (many would hold mythical) threat of a red tide overwhelming Chile was an obvious ploy by the General to woo President Reagan.
The United States has withheld all direct loans and grants from Chile because of its appalling, and welldocumented, human rights record. However, there is currently an application for £400 million in loans before the World Bank from Chile, and the United States has yet to make its crucial voice heard on the issue.
Pinochet has always treated the United States with obvious disdain, despite its crucial role in bringing him to power when he overthrew and murdered the socialist Salvador Allende.
Yet with the economy in crisis — Chile has the largest per capita foreign debt in the world — and internal opposition increasing every day, the General is in need of friends.
In this climate, a papal visit would be good publicity for the Government. In spite of its poor relations with the local Church,
and the danger of the Pope, as he did in his native Poland, mounting a stinging attack on the host government, the General is anxious for the trip to go ahead, hence his willingness to re-route. Senor Del Vallo's mission — as reported on page one — was an attempt to ensure that the Pope was in the country, but not in central points, the main cities, where his open air Masses could become a focus for those discontented with the continued repression in Chile.
And in the current climate, there must be fears for the Pope's safety. If the assassination attempt on Pinochet was in fact real, then security concerns must be paramount.
The consensus in Santiago seems to be that if Pinochet did not actually plan the assassination himself, and thus ruthlessly waste 16 guards, then it has certainly done him no harm at all — either physically or politically. The Government has been deliberately upping the political tempo in recent weeks with a series of provocative anouncements.
Now in the wake of the attack, observers fear that the General has the ideal pretext to use a poll on anti-terrorist laws as an excuse to announce himself President — for — life.
He has so far resolutely refused to speed up the constitutional process for democratic elections. A plebiscite planned for 1989 is still officially the time for the military to sign off, but it could be used as a sham, with a single military candidate.
Pinochet wants to be that candidate, there is no doubting the 70-year old's ambition. However, there have been rumblings of discontent within the navy and air force at his inflexibility and blatant disdain for human life.
Evidence of that willingness to kill, torture or deport randomly anyone who stands in his way, can be seen in the murder of Jose Carrasco and three others by clearly identified government agents in the wake of the assassination attempt.
As for the three priests, they had committed no crime on the day of their arrest that they did not commit any other day.
Fr DuBois lived in the slum of La Victoria, on the outskirts of Santiago, and was a vocal defender of the rights of the poor and oppressed.
His colleague, Fr Andre Jarlan, was murdered two years ago in clashes with the police — a stray police bullet killed him while he prayed (Catholic Herald, September 14, 1984).
The three priests had "always acted to prevent violence", the cardinal stressed after their departure. For Fr DuBois, it was the end of 20 years of serving the poor of Chile.
Although no final decision will be taken for some time yet, the Pope has ruled out the rerouting option. He wants to be "with the people", a senior aide said. Fr DuBois' people of the slums of Santiago may see the Pontiff yet.