To the mournful wail of reed flutes and the solemn thump of a bass drum, the Tzutugil Indian parishioners of slain U.S. Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother are celebrating Easter this week with fresh hopes that the violent persecution of the church might end under Guatemala's new government.
As in virtually every other town and hamlet in this land of tropical plains and soaring volcanoes, Holy Week here was a time for religious spectacle--elaborate processions through dirt streets, reenactments of the Last Supper and the crucifixion and masses celebrated to mark the death and resurrection of Christ.
Here in Santiago, a picturesque Indian town of whitewashed buildings on the glassy blue volcanic lake of Atitlan, the message of Easter this year had a special poignancy, coming just 2 1/2 weeks after the fall of the government of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia. Many fellow priests and parishioners here blamed Lucas for the death of the Oklahoma-born Rother last year and for the killing of about 20 other Catholic priests around the country since 1980.
"This is the time to commemorate Christ's suffering and sacrifice," said an Indian layman who helped a visiting U.S. priest say mass by translating it into the Tzutugil language. "It is also a time for us to remember the sacrifice and martyrdom of Father Rother and to hope the new government will allow us to work freely and openly for the good of our people."
The hopes hinge in large part on a widely perceived relaxation of tensions around Guatemala since the March 23 coup that resulted in the installation of a three-man military junta. The junta is headed by Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a born-again Christian evangelist whose brother Mario is the popular liberal Catholic bishop of Escuintla.
The Lucas Garcia government had openly warred on the Catholic Church--banning the bishop of Quiche from returning to the country, barring the entrance of new foreign priests and publicly rationalizing the killing of priests on the grounds that many allegedly were siding with the guerrilla movement challenging the government. Although Rios Montt is now a Protestant, his Christian fervor, is seen by church officials as an encouraging sign--if it can prevail over the violence and polarized currents of Guatemalan society today.
The guarded optimism of the church was reinforced last week when its episcopal conference of bishops met with Rios Montt and his two fellow junta members. One bishop described the meeting as "warm and cordial," distinctly different from the previous "tense and unfriendly" meetings they had held with Lucas Garcia.
The bishops gave the junta a communique in which they expressed "the profound interest" with which they had followed the overthrow of Lucas Garcia and spoke of the "profound feeling of satisfaction and hope" among Guatemala's 7.5 million people as a result.
Stopping just short of openly endorsing the junta, the bishops, nevertheless, said they were ready to cooperate in its promise to respect human rights. The church leaders requested that the right of religious liberty be guaranteed and that the church be allowed to "carry out its humanitarian and Christian mission of helping the numerous victims of the violence."
Bishop Rios Montt said, "My brother, the general, reacted positively to our petition, and we are hopeful that things will indeed improve for the church, and Guatemala as a whole."
It was specifically the church's insistence on helping the "victims of violence" in Guatemala that so alienated it from the Lucas Garcia government, which both Amnesty International and the U.S. Embassy blamed for a majority of the thousands of deaths and disappearances of Guatemalans in recent years.
Church concern for the victims of violence--estimated to be as high as 13,000 in 1981 alone--was taken by Lucas Garcia and his supporters as an act of treason. According to the consensus of foreign diplomats and church sources here, the church's view was used as justification for a government-supported campaign of assassinations, kidnapings and intimidation against priests, nuns, and Catholic lay workers.
Nowhere was the ugliness of that campaign clearer than here in Santiago, for 14 years the parish of Stanley Rother, an Okarche, Okla., native who mastered the intricacies of the Tzutugil tongue to speak directly to the worshipers of his whitewashed Spanish colonial cathedral.
Parishioners and fellow priests remember Rother as a "devoted, caring, loving pastor" who was disturbed by the mysterious death and disappearance of 31 of his parishioners. One of the dead was Rother's most brilliant Indian acolyte, Gaspar Culan Yataz, who was killed after speaking out in favor of human rights on the church-supported local Indian radio station, later dynamited into silence.
Rother's indignation at the killings by midnight "death squads," generally believed to consist of off-duty policemen and soldiers, earned him a place on a right-wing death list. Like countless other priests similarly intimidated, he briefly went into exile.
But he could not bear the abandonment of his people and church and, advised by third parties that his transgressions would be forgiven, he returned almost a year ago to resume preaching here.
His ministry was brutally terminated on the night of July 28 by armed and masked men who broke into his rectory bedroom and gunned him down. According to witnesses here, the Army surrounded the church and kept villagers from rushing to his aid.
In response to international outrage, Lucas Garcia arrested three men whom the government claimed were responsible for the killing. The men, who many here doubted were involved, were never tried. The case of Rother's killing, like that of so many thousands of other Guatemalans, was never solved.
Rother was buried in Oklahoma but his blood and heart were entombed in the church here where the Indians who came to honor Christ and his messenger this week believe his spirit still resides. Other U.S. priests, who drive here twice a week from their own parish across the lake at San Lucas Toleman, now attend his flock.
"He was a saint," said one crinkled old Indian lady this week, recalling Rother after mass. "He could talk to me in my own tongue, unlike all the others who have come here."
A fellow priest, the Rev. Greg Shaeffer of Minnesota, said this week after a Holy Thursday mass in Rother's old church, "Stan died because he loved his people so much. He refused to abandon them."
Almost three weeks into the rule of Rios Montt and his junta, hopes remain high here that Rother's death was not in vain.
"There is less tension, less fear now," said an Indian layman at the church, expressing the general hope that the relaxation of tension will continue. "There has been no new violence recently. We hope that will last and that Father Rother, and all the others like him, died so that we can live in peace at long last."