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‘Be a patriot and kill a priest’: life in Honduras

 

By Phil Little

04/18/2018

Padre Melo leads a Way of the Cross in April 2017. Padre Melo is considered to be the most influential Catholic leader in Honduras identified with the struggle and the interests of the poor. In a country like Honduras, where “corruption is the operating system,” a priest like Padre Melo is a threat to the traditional order, and lives under the constant threat of assassination. (Photo by Phil Little)

“Corruption can no longer be understood as merely the iniquitous doings of individuals. Rather, it is the operating system of sophisticated networks that cross sectoral and national boundaries in their drive to maximize returns for their members. Honduras is a prime example of such intertwined, or ‘integrated,’ transnational kleptocratic networks” (When Corruption is the Operating System, Sarah Chayes, 2017).

Padre Melo is a Honduran Jesuit priest, not quite 60 years old, who lives with death threats and is surrounded by death. Born Ismael Moreno into a poor peasant family, his encounter with death came early when he discovered the body of his father, the president of a farmer’s co-operative, who was assassinated because he opposed a takeover of farmer’s land by wealthy foreigners. Such an experience in Honduras is the daily bread of life for the poor, in the second poorest country of the Americas.

More correctly, Honduras ought to be described not as poor, but impoverished, that is, made poor by others. It too was “discovered” by the Spanish, who subjugated the residents with the sword and the cross. From the earliest days of the conquest, accompanied by the missionaries of the church, the military forces were legitimized by the infamous papal “Doctrine of Discovery.” The indigenous peoples subjected to genocidal brutality were replaced by African slaves to work the plantations of the European colonizers. The original purpose of the colonies was to enrich the coffers of the European royalty, but, with independence, the shift only benefited the white descendants of the new landed oligarchy.

In the late 19th century Honduras came under the dominion of the new American empire through the interests of two businesses: the United and Standard Fruit companies. Honduras became the original, quintessential “Banana Republic.” The United States defended the economic interests of its business interests by controlling the judiciary, the military and the government of Honduras.

Honduras has a long history of dictatorships, some more brutal than others. Sham elections were permitted to satisfy the needs of national pride and U.S., laws, but in a few instances, when the election brought in the wrong candidate, Americans sent in their troops to set things right.

The church in Honduras has for the most part been a colonial church, focused on the requirements of European Catholicism and bound to agreements between the Vatican and national governments. Bishops, to be appointed, needed approval of the civil government (precisely the old oligarchy). In return the church received certain benefits and protections. Thus in the 20th and 21st centuries, the church in Honduras still has a dominance of foreign clergy, including among the bishops.

While the church was present among the poor, with its clergy and the men and women religious, its loyalty was to the upper classes and service to the poor was “from above” and not in solidarity with the poor. Of course, there have been clergy and religious who identified with the poor and were in solidarity with their pain and struggle. After Vatican II and the CELAM conference of Medellin, many who served the rich and privileged began an exodus to the land of insecurity, lost prestige and sometimes death that came with the “preferential option for the poor.”

“A church that is not persecuted in an unjust society must itself be an unjust church.” — Rev. Harvey Steele, SFM (writing about the murder of Rev. Arthur MacKinnon, SFM, in Why Kill A Priest!, Crown Publications, 1982)

In 1975 Fathers Ivan Betancourt and Jerome Cypher were tortured and then executed along with 12 other leaders from poor farmer communities who called for land reform. Penny Lernoux in “Cry of the People,” her study of the persecution of the church in the late 20th century, said that the brutality of the Olancho Massacre was the worst she documented. In 1983 the American Jesuit priest, James Carney, known as “Padre Guadalupe,” was captured by a Honduran death squad working with American troops. Padre Guadalupe became radically committed to working for the very poor and was considered to be an enemy by the U.S. banana corporations. After torture, according to testimony by a member of the elite death squad, Padre Guadalupe was thrown alive from a helicopter, along with others, over the jungle of the Patuca River.

Padre Melo is considered to be the most influential Catholic leader in Honduras identified with the struggle and the interests of the poor. He is in the minority but is not the only one inspired by the changes in the church and the witness of the martyrs. Among these are the more well-known bishops such as Angelelli of Argentina, Gerardi of Guatemala, and Romero of El Salvador. There are the many priests, like Ivan and Jerome, Vicente Hondarza of Peru, Rutilo Grande of El Salvador, Carlos Mugica of Argentina, Camilo Torres of Columbia, and so many more from most countries.

There are the sisters who have been murdered — Ita Ford and companions in El Salvador, and Dorothy Stang in Brazil. And lay people, not hundreds but thousands: catechists, teachers, nurses, community leaders, activists and human rights defenders and today especially environmental defenders who add to a martyrology that rivals the Age of Martyrs of the early church. What these modern-day martyrs all have in common that is different than the early church is that they have been murdered by persons and groups who call themselves Christians or “muy Catolicos” (very Catholic) defending the old order of privilege and power. These very “Christian” assassins have had the support of some official leaders in the church and the new evangelical organizations.

According to Honduran government documents, the Cardinal Archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras and the head of the Evangelical Union each receive a generous annual stipend worth more than US$4 million from the office of the president. It is not a surprise that both religious leaders supported the coup d’état of 2009 and continue to support the dictatorship.

On Feb. 2 of each year the military leadership gathers at the Basilica of Suyapa, the Honduran Marian shrine, to pay their respect and receive their recognition as defenders of the nation. The families of the oligarchy, many of them deeply embedded with the drug cartels, also show their gratitude for the support of the traditional religious leadership. As reported by The Tablet on Jan 2, 2018, the Vatican has ordered an investigation into the financial affairs of the Honduran Cardinal Rodriguez.

A priest does not end up on a military hit list because he has had too many first communions in the parish. Particularly since Vatican II, and especially in Latin America after the Conferences of Medellin and Puebla, the “church” has been more conscious of its social function in society. The church recognizes the divine in the life of the people, not just in religious liturgies. John XXIII called for an attentiveness to “the signs of the times” while the poor became evangelizing agents more than the objects of pity and charity. Church people were called to “a preferential option for the poor” which, surprisingly, seemed to parallel the way Jesus reached out to the poor. “Go sell what you have and give it to the poor,” he said. But still many in the church continue to go away sad.

Many of the clergy, foreign and national born, have experienced a profound conversion when they listened to the “cry of the people.” Until the mid-20th century most religious orders and congregations preferentially served the rich and the powerful. When they entered into this conversion experience to work among the poor from the perspective of the needs and suffering of the poor, the privileged classes felt betrayed and abandoned.

Padre Melo recently has spoken about the process used by the power elites to bring the clergy back into their sphere of influence. First they offer gifts and financial support. If, however, they cannot buy you, they then look for ways to discredit or smear your reputation. You might even be called a communist, which is more than name calling, for it recalls the campaigns to “Be a patriot and kill a priest.” If that does not at least persuade the clergy to pull back or soften their tone, the third phase would lead to accusations and criminalization. The final fourth step in this process is to kill or “disappear” the troublesome clergyman. And thus are born the martyrs who really don’t go away, because they become the seeds of a new generation of disciples. As Bishop Romero said, “If they kill me I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

Radio Progreso and the human rights Institute called E.R.I.C. (Teams for Research, Investigation and Communication), which are Jesuit apostolates and directed by Padre Melo, have been a constant irritation to the dictatorship and the oligarchy and have even attracted the attention of the American State department. In November in the run-up to the fraudulent national elections, one tower of the radio station was toppled by the military so the people of the capital city could not receive messages contrary to the official government propaganda broadcast by state and private stations.

Two hit lists were published and distributed accusing Padre Melo of connections to organized crime and embarrassing the nation with his criticisms. Other members of his team have also received death threats, most recently in February 2018. One of his radio managers was killed in 2014. Since 2001 a total of 66 journalists have been assassinated in Honduras, with only six of these cases being investigated by the police. In one year between November 2015 and October 2016 a total of 27 human rights and environmental defenders were assassinated. Since 2010 more than 120 lawyers have been assassinated in Honduras.

Padre Melo has survived previous assassination attempts by professional killers. His own personal history did not require a conversion, but rather a commitment to be true to his roots and his people. He stands with the poor farming communities threatened with expropriation by agribusiness that want more land to produce palm oil. He goes into the prisons to defend political prisoners, and sometimes just prisoners too poor to defend themselves.

He has stood in front of military lines threatening to kill peasant communities who resist the loss of their lands and rivers to foreign and national financial interests. He has testified in Washington about human rights abuses and has spoken in different international forums about the dismal human rights situation in Honduras. He has gone into hiding to accompany communities in Guatemala that were hunted by the military during the genocide period.

He is not fearless, nor does he seek to be provocative. He is clear about from where he comes. His deep almost mystical faith calls him to be present to those who suffer and are oppressed. Like the preacher from Galilee, he is known to associate with the poor and those feared by the State: human rights defenders, environmentalists, lawyers (well some of them anyway!), indigenous communities, and women activists. His influence as a religious leader is also resented by the temple priests and Pharisees.

In a country like Honduras, where “corruption is the operating system,” a priest like Padre Melo is a threat to the traditional order. When once asked if he has much hope, he said no. Asked then to define his ministry, he said it was “to accompany the victims.” These are the victims of colonialism, the 65 per cent living in poverty and half of these in “extreme” poverty, the First Nation Topupan and Lenca peoples facing massive destruction of their traditional lands, the young workers mostly women working in the foreign-owned sweatshops, the peasant communities threatened by agribusiness, feminist and LGBT activists, human rights and environmental defenders, and lay church workers such as the “delegates of the word.”

Father Ismael Moreno, SJ, known as Padre Melo, understands his situation very well. He is a Jesuit doing the work of the Jesuits of Central America who have made a commitment to working with the poor. His work is reflective of that of Jesus: “to tell the good news to the poor, to announce release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set oppressed people free” (Lk 4:18).

Little is a retired teacher living on Vancouver Island. Born in Alberta, he went to university in Ottawa. As a member of the Oblate congregation he went to Peru as a missionary from 1972 to 1980. Returning to Canada he married and taught in the Toronto Catholic school system for 26 years until retirement.