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Ecuador’s defender of poor replaced

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cuenca, Ecuador

Archbishop Alberto Luna Tobar, 76, an outspoken defender of the rights of Ecuador’s poor and indigenous people and one of the country’s last progressive bishops, was replaced in February as head of the influential Cuenca archdiocese by a staunch conservative.

The change came less than a month after Luna supported protests that led to the overthrow on Jan. 22 of President Jamil Mahuad by a civilian-military junta that quickly relinquished power to a civilian government. While many Ecuadoreans praised Luna’s measured response during the crisis, members of the church hierarchy blamed Luna for fomenting rebellion.

ýLuna, who began his church career in a wealthy parish in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, can be viewed in the tradition of other Latin American prelates Ñ including retired Cardinal Evaristo Arns of Brazil, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and retired Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of Chiapas, Mexico -- whose views changed remarkably following contact with the poor and marginalized in their cultures.

The transition in archbishops also points up how open disagreements among elements of the episcopacy here have become. The contrast between Luna and Vicente Cisneros Durán, the Vatican’s pick as his successor, is apparent.

“I don’t share Archbishop Luna’s rebellious attitude toward political issues. Just because they are part of the church hierarchy, bishops should not go beyond the church’s evangelizing mission,” Cisneros told a Guayaquil daily newspaper.

ýAlthough he no longer heads the archdiocese, Luna remains president of the Human Rights Commission of Cuenca, which includes nearly all local community, political and grassroots organizations. And his supporters believe Ñ or hope -- that the mark he has left on the archdiocese in his nearly two decades there will be difficult to erase.

In Spanish, a bishop’s title is Monseñor. Luna, who refused to use the title archbishop, is known simply as “Monse” to indigenous people, prison inmates and government officials alike. He arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city, on April 8, 1981, with a reputation as a priest of the wealthy.

The delegation that accompanied him to his new see did nothing to dispel his image. The group included two right-wing former presidents, Galo Plaza and Andrés F. Córdova, as well as a number of bishops and political figures.

But the seeds of change had already been planted in Luna’s ministry. He was only 15 when, as a Discalced Carmelite seminarian, he traveled to Spain to complete his studies, arriving in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. That, he says, was the first defining moment. He spent his first year in Spain “without studying, some days without eating, seeing the pain of death. That experience made me an opponent of violence.”

In his last several years in Quito, he worked in a poor neighborhood established in a land takeover. His homilies took on a more progressive tone, and many Santa Teresita parishioners began to avoid his Masses.

“He started going into the hardest, poorest parishes, pointed out the problems and began to bring that reality face to face with the gospel,” Fr. Román Malgiaritta recalls. “He made it so that the most radical among us had a hard time following in his footsteps. He turned our way of walking with the people into a marathon.”

Death threats were not long in coming. Strangers raided Luna’s office and rifled his papers. He was placed under surveillance, although he never tried to hide. In fact, the repression gave him the courage to confront right-wing President León Febres Cordero openly, publicly criticizing Pope John Paul II’s praise of the president during the 1985 papal visit to Ecuador.

When Luna speaks of those days, it is with long pauses, as though he is seeking the strength that kept him faithful to his idea of “combative solidarity.”

“Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean an eternal state of submission or passivity,” he said. “It means helping the offender to move out of his condition of being an offender. That is why there is legitimate protest and combative solidarity among the poor, to lead the rich out of their state of sin.”

Luna’s ministry among the province’s indigenous people has not always been easy. In La Unión, where parishioners had dragged an alleged murderer into the parish hall last October and lynched him, he drew the wrath of local officials.

“They tortured [the alleged murderer], broke his arms one at a time and then, while he was still alive, they set him on fire,” Luna said, still visibly moved by the memory. “They called this ‘taking justice into their own hands.’ Executioners of the language is what they are.”

In response, Luna closed the parish and removed the priest. Right-wing politicians accused the archbishop of being soft on crime. Luna, however, was adamant.

“These savage attitudes show nothing of justice, but rather a barbaric, criminal injustice. They are public crimes, social crimes, with guilty parties, among whom we are also tolerant accomplices,” he said.

In order to have the censure lifted, members of the community of La Unión publicly repented, committed themselves to caring for the family of the man they had lynched -- who turned out to have been innocent -- and promised never again to “take refuge in the anonymity of an enraged crowd, without recognizing our undisputed communal responsibility,” as Luna said in a eucharistic celebration of forgiveness last Christmas.

Under Luna, Cuenca has become the largest source of vocations of priests committed to the poor -- indeed, of all priestly vocations -- in the country. Most of Cuenca’s priests received their early training as lay ministers. In his time in Cuenca, Luna ordained 50 priests, many of them from indigenous communities. There are presently 21 seminarians in the seminary, but Luna says the real roots of their vocations lie in the church’s community work, “where the gospel meets reality.”

Luna has been one of the harshest critics of Ecuadorian politics. He has left virtually no major issue untouched in the editorials he writes for a Quito daily newspaper.

His belief in legitimate protest against an economic system that “kills a people slowly” led Luna to identify with Ecuador’s indigenous movement. In 1990, when the first indigenous uprising in recent history occurred, Luna’s conviction that the protests were a fight for dignity led him not only to encourage indigenous communities, but to call on mestizos, or mixed-blood Ecuadorians, to support them.

“Living with dignity does not only imply living according to universal values and the doctrine preached by the church in the spiritual realm. Dignity is more concrete. It means establishing ways of living together fairly, eradicating the sinful system in which we live when we submit to the economic model imposed by the powerful. That’s why our commitment is to walk with the poor,” Luna says.

Luna was a key participant in a “People’s Parliament of Ecuador” that met Jan. 10. Delegates from grassroots groups and community organizations developed a series of proposals including restructuring of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government; an end to corruption and impunity; support for the Jubilee 2000 debt initiative and a democratic economy that did not exclude large segments of the population; reforms in health care, agriculture and social security; and full recognition of the country’s pluriculturality. The parliament also called for demonstrations and a peaceful “takeover” of Quito, the capital -- a decision that helped pave the way for the president’s ouster on Jan. 21.

By January, Ecuador’s economy was in a tailspin. In 1999 alone, the country’s currency was devalued by nearly 200 percent, inflation ran at 60.7 percent and the economy shrank by 7.3 percent. The minimum wage is only $40 a month, and 64 percent of the population lives in poverty or extreme poverty.

Luna was bitterly critical of government policies “that so aggressively attack the rights of the injured parties that it’s time to invite those who make up this sector of Ecuadorian society -- who are condemned to a slow death -- to rebel against this profanation of charity and demand plain, simple justice,” he said.

A march on the capital by indigenous organizations came to a head Jan. 20 and 21, when the protesters occupied Congress and the Supreme Court. In the end, a three-member “Junta of National Salvation” was formed. In the early morning hours of Jan. 22, the junta turned power over to Vice President Gustavo Noboa.

Miguel Lluco, head of the Pachakutik Movement, which launched the indigenous groups’ foray into electoral politics four years ago, later commented, “If Archbishop Luna had been there, things would have turned out differently. No general could betray ‘Monse.’ ”

In one poll, 51 percent of the respondents said they were most impressed with the way Luna acted during the crisis. Ecuador’s Catholic hierarchy did not see matters in the same light, however, and the decision to replace Luna was swift. Cisneros was named on Feb. 15.

Luna himself is aware of his achievements, but speaks of them with humility. “Life has been generous with my presence in society,” he said. “I have no more power than the community. To be a bishop is to be a spokesman and guide. ”

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000