Page 5, 9th December 1994

9th December 1994
Page 5
Page 5, 9th December 1994 — Church fights State
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Locations: Cordoba, Madrid, Medellin, Tibu, BOGOTA

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Church fights State

In Colombia, as Harry Clegg discovered, bishops are coming under attack from the State for their stand on social justice.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA: it has become almost a regular occurrence. Every month or so a body appears on the doorstep of the parish headquarters in the small town of Tibu.

The bodies are never accompanied by any sort of message. But to everyone in Tibu the meaning is clear enough: a warning to Bishop Luis Madrid Merlano of what is likely to happen to him if he continues talking to the Leftist insurgents that operate in the zone, Mgr Madrid which is how the bishop is referred to in Spanish is one of a growing number of senior members of the Catholic Church in Colombia who have been effectively condemned to death by shadowy Right-wing death squads for maintaining "pastoral dialogues" with the insurgents. Now the assault on the clergy is being led from a different and even more dangerous quarter: the state itself.

In an outspoken attack, Colombia's Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff earlier this year said Mgr Madrid and three other bishops he described as "guerilla couriers" were being investigated by his office. The bishops, all of whom work in dangerous conditions in militarized "red zones" face possible charges of aiding the rebels.

The bishops, in turn, fiercely defended their right to maintain contacts with all sections of the community where they work. "Of course I talk to the guerrillas, this is part of a priest's job, as is talking to the Army and to ordinary village folk," said Jorge Leonard Gomez Serna, Bishop of Socorro and San Gil. In the view of Mgr Madrid "no human law can prohibit the free exercise of our Ministry. This would be a betrayal of the Church of Jesus Christ."

The bishops' unrepentant attitude and the hierarchy's unified support of them further increased the impression of a serious Church-State rift. The present clash reveals yet more strains in the "special relationship" the Church has long enjoyed with Colombia.

At the base of this relationship stands the concordat. Colombia is the only country in Latin America to have signed this far-reaching treaty with the Vatican which gives the Church the status of a quasi-official body.

The first crack in the facade of unity came at the beginning of last year. In a ruling that struck at the heart of the concordat, the Constitutional Court announced that many aspects of the treaty were incompatible with Colombia's 1991 constitution.

But what has truly damaged the Church's erstwhile cosy relationship with Colombia's ruling institutions is its shifting allegiance from the ruling oligarchy to the poor.

Bishops have become more vocal in their criticism of injustice.

The Church has begun pointing the finger at the dirty war tactics employed by the army to combat them. Even such members of the old school as Colombian Bishops Conference president Pedro Rubiano have begun talking of the "need for social justice" if the country is to enjoy a lasting peace. Such a change in posture has led to resentment within the ranks of the Colombian establishment where it is felt that the Church is betraying its traditional role. As Attorney General De Greiff has said,"There's a great deal of difference between talking to the guerrillas and saying, yes, there are many social injustices in Colombia and this can justify acting outside the law."

The Church counters that it has maintained contacts with the guerrillas for several years now and had never previously been censured. Such contacts have allowed it to play a key role in moves to pacify a country where last year alone 28,000 people died violently. It took a priest, Fr Rafael Garcia-Herreros, to talk drug lord Pablo Escobar into handing himself in to the authorities. Through the present crisis the Church has continued to use its good offices to forge important peace deals. Bishop Nelk Beltran of Sincelejo is mediating the demobilization of a 300strong band of Maoist fighters in the strife-torn region of Cordoba.

Another Church envoy, Hector Fabio Henao, has played a crucial role in persuading members of the Popular Militias, a Left-wing vigilante group responsible for hundreds of murders in Medellin, to lay down their arms. In both cases the parties involved said talks would never have got off the ground without the mediation of the Church.

But as Mgr Madrid pointed out, how "can the State call for our participation as mediators and then accuse us of being guerrillas?".




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