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Protests From Guatemala's Pulpits

Mine Dispute Kindles Resurgent Activism In Catholic Church

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page A10

SAN MIGUEL IXTAHUACAN, Guatemala -- The Rev. Eric Gruloos strode around a church classroom in this hillside hamlet, holding up a melon-size rock.

"They have not told us the truth about the mine!" he charged, as nearly 30 Catholic parishioners took notes.

The Rev. Eric Gruloos leads a service in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, in an area where a mining project has upset church leaders. (Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)

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The rock, he explained, was the kind that comes from the big open-pit gold mine that huge bulldozers are carving out of the mountains nearby -- a multimillion-dollar project that Catholic Church officials have vehemently protested from the pulpit, on a church-owned radio station and in street demonstrations led by the local bishop.

Gruloos rattled off statistics about arsenic and other contaminants that can come from rocks like the one in his hand. He spoke of the potential environmental dangers of mining, slowly explaining basic science to his indigenous parishioners, almost none of whom had finished primary school.

"We have to be strong so we are not manipulated," Gruloos said. "Some are upset that the church is speaking out against the mine. But we are doing what Jesus did. He came to wake people up to injustice."

The Catholic Church's aggressive opposition to the mine project, being built by a Canadian company and backed by the Guatemalan government, is the kind of grass-roots political and social activism by clergymen that dominated Latin America a generation ago, when outspoken priests and bishops openly challenged authoritarian governments.

During the nearly 27 years of Pope John Paul II's tenure, such aggressive social agitation faded with the arrival of a new generation of more conservative priests more closely aligned with the Vatican. While liberal as well as conservative clergymen campaign for Latin America's most marginalized people, they have markedly different philosophies about how to do it. Both sides stand with the poor, but the liberals are far more likely to march with them, too.

Reconciling the differing approaches to the church's role in social justice issues in Latin America will be a major challenge for John Paul's successor, according to interviews with clergymen and church scholars.

"We need to examine our consciences and change. We have forgotten our fundamental commitment to poor people," said Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, the activist in charge of the diocese that includes San Miguel, a small town tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains and reachable by a single dirt road.

In January, Ramazzini led an anti-mine protest through the streets of San Marcos, the provincial capital. He told protesters that the foreign interests behind the mine profited from Guatemala's natural resources while bringing little benefit to poor residents.

The march was a direct challenge to President Oscar Berger, whose government says the mine is environmentally safe and will bring hundreds of much-needed jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue. Michael Steeves, a mining company spokesman reached in Reno, Nev., said he was "baffled" by the church's opposition to the mine and cited the same benefits mentioned by the president.

In a rare public spat with the church, Berger accused Ramazzini of organizing a second anti-mine demonstration, in which one protester was killed in a confrontation with police. Ramazzini said he does not advocate violence and had nothing to do with that incident, and Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruno of Guatemala City publicly rebuked Berger, saying his comments made it seem that "the government only responds to the interests of transnational companies." Shortly afterward, Ramazzini received a death threat; he is now accompanied by government bodyguards round-the-clock.

"Even some of my colleagues tell me not to become so involved, to be quiet," said Ramazzini, 57, who has led previous protests over working conditions in the huge coffee plantations in his diocese and over land rights issues plaguing his indigenous parishioners.

"But for me it is a matter of conscience," he said. "If we don't evangelize to help poor people, it's not the evangelizing of Jesus Christ, and we have to ask ourselves what kind of evangelizing we are doing."

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