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With López gone, new emphasis on human rights

NCR Staff

Crisis and conversion often accompany one another, and those two elements may be at the heart of the movement of the Colombian bishops’ conference to the national forefront on peace and human rights issues.

For years, under the influence of political and ecclesial hard-liner Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, Colombia’s bishops were noted for being among the most conservative in Latin America. But renewed violence in the wider culture coupled with an easing of tensions in the church that occurred when López departed for Rome is transforming the ecclesial leaders, church and secular sources say.

In 1989, Pax Christi Holland issued a human rights report on Colombia criticizing the bishops for not making a public defense of human rights despite deep commitments by religious and laity, many of whom died working for justice and the poor.

Today, however, many Colombians consider the Catholic church one of the few institutions with broad enough credibility to help mediate an end to the country’s bloody conflict.

Bishop Jorge Iván Castaño Rubio of Quibdó, said, “Life is endangered in this country. We cannot stand with our arms crossed and remain silent. Our worst risk is to fail in making a sincere commitment to solving this. ... No bishop today can say, ‘I choose not to drink from this cup.’ “

More than 10,000 people were displaced from Castaño’s region in February by military bombardments and paramilitary squads. Castaño said that confronting the violence and the internal displacement of more than one million Colombians in the last decade has galvanized the bishops.

“Internal displacement was the final shout,” he said. “This violence went beyond the kidnappings and killings of government officials, of politicians, of soldiers. This violence was against the defenseless poor, the marginalized, who began to die absurdly.”

Key to the bishops’ new activism was the 1995 publication by the episcopal conference of a detailed investigation of the displaced.

Bishop Gutiérrez Tulio Duque of the diocese of Apartadó in the violence-riven region of Urabá said that with the report the bishops “jumped forward prophetically on a huge problem.”

The bishops subsequently analyzed the factors that force people to flee and prevent their return: guerrilla violence, paramilitaries, political exclusion, abandonment and impoverishment in the countryside, economic inequity and the repercussions of neoliberal economic policies on the poor.

One episcopal conference insider who asked to remain anonymous said, “There are about 10 bishops from conflict zones who get together to reflect on the reality their people live. I sat in on one of those conversations, and they speak in ways that years ago would have been described as revolutionary.”

The bishops have played key roles in mediating explosive situations, like the freeing June 15 of 70 army soldiers held hostage for nine months by guerrillas from the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, FARC, in the southern Caqueta department. The success of that negotiation was attributed largely to the low-profile pastoral work of Bishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga of Cartagena del Chaira.

“The FARC have controlled this zone for years. This is a zone that has been marginalized and forgotten by the government,” Castro said shortly after the soldiers’ release. “The FARC has filled a political void here; drug trafficking has filled an economic void.”

The bishops have also given impetus to a national reconciliation commission, seeking advice on peace initiatives from Central American counterparts such as progressive San Salvador Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez.

For years Hector Torres, editor of the Christian monthly Utopias, was disillusioned with the response of the Colombian bishops to violence and poverty. During an interview in June, however, he lavished superlatives on the conference.

“They’ve become involved in human rights, in working for peace,” he said. “They now raise their voices in favor of the impoverished sectors. They criticize the political elites, state corruption. ... They criticize paramilitary groups, promote justice work. Last February, their plenary assembly focused on the impoverishment of the Colombian people.”

The López appointment to Rome in 1992 contributed to the shift in the conference. A bishop, speaking off the record, said, “Under López Trujillo, the bishops did things in silence. Now there is a great deal more freedom,” he said.

Episcopal Conference President Alberto Giraldo denied Lopez’s influence. He said the changes in the conference “have been germinating for 30 years, since Vatican II, (the Latin American bishops’ meetings in) Medellín and Puebla, through reflection and thanks to lessons learned.”

Church sources said that the pastoral leadership of Giraldo, archbishop of Popayán, and of Archbishop Pedro Rubiano Sáenz of Bogotá, Giraldo’s predecessor as head of the conference, helped to create an ecclesial climate of renewal.

However, Fr. Fernán González, assistant director of the Jesuit Center of Investigation and Popular Education, said that with López Trujillo in Rome, the Colombian bishops began to “speak out without a big cloud hanging over them.”

With López now serving as president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, González said “the image of monolithic unity that he tried to maintain outside of Colombia has disappeared.”

Under López, he said “the church was worried about it’s internal problems -- things like priests he thought were rebellious.” In contrast, Rubiano and Giraldo “took the helm,” González said, “and turned the vision of the church toward social problems.”

Gonzalez said the bishops now work closely with the Jesuit organization creating “zones free of tension” for displaced returnees and publicly fostering a “climate for peace, an attitude favoring dialogue.”

In conflict zones like northwestern Uraba, bishops work with the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace. The commission, operating for over a decade without support from the episcopal conference, was created by superiors of religious orders in Colombia. For years, under the leadership of Jesuit Fr. Javier Giraldo, the commission was one of the few organizations documenting human rights crimes.

The church-state divorce that occurred in the early 1990s also fueled the bishops’ transformation, Torres said. In a two-year span, the government modified a long-standing concordat with the Catholic church and adopted a 1991 reform of the constitution that removed the word “Catholic” from the definition of the Colombian state.

“The political class let go of its addiction to the episcopal conference,” Torres said. This dovetailed with the growing anguish of the flock, the influence of a new generation of bishops, the absence of López and the Pax Christi critique, he said.

“All this led the bishops to realize they were living in a different country, and it was they themselves who needed to change,” Torres said.

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 1997