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Peru’s new cardinal known for standing with the powerful

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Lima, Peru

Peru’s controversial new cardinal, Juan Luis Cipriani, longtime opponent of human rights activists in Peru, got a cool reception at his first Mass as cardinal here. The Mass was punctuated by shouts of “The church yes, Cipriani no,” and “Christ is justice, not complicity.”

The open-air Mass outside the cathedral in Lima’s main square drew a sparse -- and conservative -- crowd March 4. Worshipers carrying banners of the militantly conservative New Catechumenate movement stood out, as did members of the fraternity dedicated to the Lord of the Miracles, Peru’s most popular religious devotion, in their purple robes.

Behind the worshipers, a small group of demonstrators waved banners and chanted slogans.

The crowd occupied less than half the plaza, which pro-democracy protesters had packed several months earlier in celebration when the government of Cipriani’s friend, President Alberto Fujimori, finally teetered and fell.

The demonstrations at Cipriani’s first Mass since being made a cardinal in January were reminiscent of the pro-democracy protests. A group of women calling themselves Catholic Women for Dignity washed small replicas of the Vatican flag, just as women had washed the Peruvian flag in the plaza every Friday at noon for weeks after Fujimori was elected to a third term that was widely considered unconstitutional.

In a statement two days later, the Peruvian Conference of Bishops condemned the protesters’ “disrespectful behavior” as an “anti-witness.” They said that Pope John Paul II’s decision to include Cipriani in the newest group of cardinals “must be respected and accepted by the faithful. Therefore, no offense against [Cipriani] is justified, let alone during a sacred celebration.”

Although it has often been noted that Cipriani is the world’s first Opus Dei cardinal, the protests against him have less to do with his conservative theology than with his politics.

As bishop of Ayacucho, the small city in the central highlands that was the epicenter of terrorist activity by Peru’s Mao-inspired Shining Path, from 1980 to 1992, Cipriani hobnobbed with military officers accused of human rights violations and hurled insults at human rights organizations.

On several occasions, Cipriani called human rights groups “useful fools” and in a 1991 interview with the daily newspaper, El Comercio, he said, “Most human rights organizations are just covering the tails of political movements, almost all of them Marxist and Maoist.”

In the 1980s, during the governments of presidents Fernando Belaúnde and Alan García, the military waged a dirty war against the Shining Path in the highlands. Typically, a terrorist column would enter a rural community, hold a “people’s trial,” execute local authorities and request food, medicine and shelter. Anyone who refused to provide aid would be killed. Soon after the column left, a military patrol would arrive, and soldiers would torture, kill or “disappear” anyone suspected of collaborating with the terrorists.

Cipriani defended the military’s actions in one of the most notorious massacres. It occurred in Cayara, a village in his Ayacucho diocese, apparently in revenge for a Shining Path ambush of a military patrol. In mid-May 1988, 34 campesinos were killed in Cayara and the neighboring communities of Cceshua and Mayupampa. Prosecutor Carlos Escobar, who investigated the case, received so many death threats that he fled to the United States. He worked in the United States as a laborer until last year, when he returned to Peru to receive the annual human rights award conferred by the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee.

One by one, the witnesses to the Cayara massacre were killed. Caught in the crossfire in rural areas, many campesinos fled to highland cities or made their way to Lima, the coastal capital. While some returned home after the violence subsided in 1992 with the capture of the leaders of the Shining Path and the Marxist MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement), most did not.

In a 1994 interview with the weekly news magazine Caretas, Cipriani said, “In a situation of violence like the one in Ayacucho, deaths, disappearances and abuses are part of the war. Defenders of human rights will call it a dirty war. I believe the armed forces had to use mechanisms to find out how and where these things happened,” he said.

After the political violence in the highlands subsided, Cipriani dropped out of the public spotlight until early 1997. Then he offered to serve as mediator after a group of MRTA guerrillas seized the Japanese ambassador’s residence during an official reception in December 1996, taking more than 600 people hostage. The guerrillas freed most of the hostages almost immediately, but kept 74 who seemed the most likely bargaining chips in their efforts to gain release of jailed MRTA leaders. Cipriani traveled to Lima in January 1997 to act as mediator with the rebels. He entered the residence several times to celebrate Mass and apparently smuggled in eavesdropping devices that government forces used to time their raid on the building a few months later.

Most of the hostages were freed in the operation. One, Supreme Court Justice Carlos Giusti Acuña, died of a heart attack, and two soldiers were killed. All 14 guerrillas also died, and while there is no decisive evidence, there were accusations that some were executed after surrendering. Most of the bodies were not turned over to family members.

Throughout the tumultuous Fujimori administration, which ended with Fujimori’s resignation last November amid a corruption scandal, Cipriani followed the government’s official line on human rights.

Recently, Cipriani stirred up another flurry of commentary. On Jan. 23, a videotape of a talk he had given to a group of cadets in the national military school was aired on a political commentary program on television. It was liberally peppered with obscenities and off-color comments.

Confronted by reporters the next day, Cipriani said, “I don’t deny that I have a dirty mouth,” but said the tape had been edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Certain unnamed groups were “manipulating people’s images” for political purposes, he said.

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001