By a Staff Reporter In the first move of its kind, 4,000 Catholic nuns in Britain have signed a petition asking the United Nations SecretaryGeneral to intercede over 1,000 women imprisoned by Chile's military junta.
"Maria," who recently escaped from Chile with her husband and children, last week told a press conference in London of the torturing of pregnant I 6-year-old girls and other atrocities practised by the Chilian army regime, which prides itself on its Christianity and moral leadership. The day she spoke the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported it had found "extremely serious violations" of fundamental human rights in Chile, despite being forbidden entry to five centres where torture is reported to be practised. Since the fall of Marxist President Allende's regime in a military coup in September last year, all political parties have been banned and the press censored. Reports from the special representative to the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference, Amnesty International and other bodies have confirmed allegations of torture, and summary executions on a massive scale.
Those studying the situation agree that the figure for those imprisoned in newly-erected concentration camps and other centres cannot be less than 7,000.
"Maria" said: "People just disappear, and maybe three months or so later their relatives learn they are in prison. Bodies have been found with the heads and hands so badly hacked as to make them unrecognisable."
It was enough to he the wife or even the 18year-old daughter of someone of whose politics the regime disapproved, to be imprisoned, she said. In some cases she had heard of women prisoners committing suicide after being raped by the military. The military and police had torture houses, she said. One was at 33 Calle Londres, Santiago. But they moved their address as soon as people came to know of what was going on, she said.
Officially, only 700 people were detained, no one knew the real numbers. But one camp at a saltpetre mine she knew of had 1,900 prisoners. In a regime which claims to be Christian (the President, General Pinochet, starts many speeches: "I am a Christian") the Church provides the only permitted opposition. This chiefly comes from the ecumenical Chilean Committee for Peace sponsored by Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez of Santiago, whom the military-controlled press christened the "Red Cardinal" when he resigned as patron of the university after the regime had taken over its running.
Some of the most conclusive evidence of torture in Chile has been published in Mexico in a report attributed to the Committee, which listed methods that included electric shock, burning with cigarettes and acid, immersion in petrol and water, rape, castration and forced ingestion of excrement.
Children have also been used as hostages to bring pressure to bear on their parents.
Sister Mary St Paul Evans, Provincial of the Canonesses Regular of St Augustine and president of the women's section of the Council of Major Religious Superiors, said she had supported the effort to collect signatures from sisters.
"We hope that our small effort will give some encouragement to the Church in Chile and especially to Cardinal Silva, who has been working tirelessly to protect the lives and livelihoods of men and women in Chile," she said.
A letter received from a nun working in Chile said her efforts were appreciated there "where so few dare raise their voices against torture and arbitrary imprisonment . . . we are counting on the continuing support of fellow-Christians throughout the world."
Sister Mary said the support of the petition was especially fitting on the eve of Holy Year, of which the theme was "Reconciliation."
The United Nations Human Rights Committee is among the organisations backing the petition to the UN Secretary General, Mr Kurt Waldheim, and already 9,600 signatures have been collected from women all over Europe, to whom the nuns' signatures are to be added.
The petition draws attention to the case of Lumi Videla Moya and her four-year-old son. Mrs Videla was detained with her husband in September of this year and her young son was tortured in her presence. She was then tortured until she died and her body was flung into the grounds of the Italian Embassy in Santiago, where some women and children have sought refuge.
Petitions can be obtained from the Catholic Institute for International Relations, who helped the nuns to collect the signatures, which are still coming in at the rate of several hundred a day. Copies of the petition are being sent to the Foreign Secretary and the Pope. The CUR believes the fact that a significant body of Catholic opinion in this country has expressed itself in this form should weigh very seriously with the junta, whose head likes to be photographed praying and boasts attendance at daily Mass.