|Liberation Theology|
The church-state alliance endured until Vatican II, when the winds of change burst upon the church. In Latin America, where the Catholic Church is one of the three institutional powers, along with the military and the landowning and industrial elites, the impact was akin to a hurricane: In less than a decade the church shifted its institutional allegiance from rich to poor, gave birth to liberation theology, and undertook the organization of thousands of grassroots Christian base communities that would give the poor greater participation in their church and society and lead to the emergence of a new, more militant faith.

...Whereas Catholicism had previously encouraged fatalism, the post-Vatican II church taught the poor that they were equal in the sight of God and that they should take history into their own hands by seeking political and economic changes. It was not God's will that their children died of malnutrition but the result of sinful man-made structures... It suggested that a community of believers could overcome their wretched conditions by working together for the common good and a better future. Members of the base communities became agents for change; although many were killed by repressive regimes, their blood gave impetus to the movement. The church of El Quiché in Guatemala, for example, continued to grow in its religious commitment to a more just society not despite, but because of, the martyrdom of so many of its catechists...

Sanctuary began... with a small group of people in distress. The governments of El Salvador and Guatemala - both, in Jeane Kirkpatrick's view, "moderately repressive" dictatorships - had been systematically killing their own people... Individual churches tried to help the Central American refugees on an ad hoc basis, but in July 1980 matters took a dramatic turn when a professional smuggler, or "coyote," abandoned twenty-six Salvadorans in the Arizona desert. Half died of dehydration and exposure before they were found. The survivors were taken to a Tucson hospital by a border patrol of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which announced that as soon as the refugees had recovered they would be arrested for deportation to El Salvador. Presbyterian pastor John Fife, who would become a co-founder of the Sanctuary movement, was one of several church people approached by immigration lawyers, who said that the Salvadorans were terrified of being sent back to their country and would the churches please help. "At that point I couldn't have put El Salvador on the map," Fife recalled. But he learned quickly enough - "about death squads, and about churches being machine-gunned, and about priests being murdered..."

...retired rancher... Jim Corbett... a Quaker with a degree in philosophy from Harvard... learned about a wounded Salvadoran woman who needed a doctor but was afraid to seek help. "She'd been shot in El Salvador just a couple weeks before, and the bullet was still in her," said Corbett. "I just started calling doctors to see who was willing to risk license, prison and so forth in order to let us know what to do about this woman. That's how it was all along," he said of Sanctuary's origins. "We didn't even organize by running around and asking, 'Will you become an active member of this secret organization?' ..."

For two years Fife, Corbett, and other concerned individuals worked with the Tucson Ecumenical Council... Corbett's house was full of refugees, as were most of the homes of other Tucson church people who were trying to help the Central Americans... Fife took the problem to the elders of his church: Should they or should they not provide sanctuary for undocumented Salvadorans in their church? "I was real clear with them: 'If the government catches us doing this, it's five years in prison for every refugee we bring in this church.' They voted to do it."

As the congregation came to know the refugees, more became involved, taking them to live in their homes and gradually joining an "underground railroad" that smuggled refugees across the border to churches in the United States...

Meanwhile, the INS had figured out what was going on, and Corbett and Fife got a message to stop or face arrest. But "we couldn't stop," said Fife. "...The conclusion we came to is the only other option we have is to give public witness to what we're doing, what the plight of the refugees is and the faith basis for our actions."

...In March 1982, on the second anniversary of Archbishop Romero's assassination, Fife's church and four other congregations on the East and West coasts publicly declared their churches sanctuaries for undocumented Central American refugees. But as Corbett said, "Sanctuary is not a place; it's the protective community of a congregation of people with the persecuted. It has infinite dimensions."

"My congregation did not vote to declare public sanctuary because they determined after careful study that it was an effective political tactic to oppose the Reagan administration's policy," said Fife. "They declared sanctuary because they determined after Bible study, prayer and agonizing reflection that they could not remain faithful to the God of the Exodus and prophets and do anything less. It was for us a question of faith."

...By mid-1984 nearly 150 churches and synagogues had declared for Sanctuary, which gained the support of mainline Protestant denominations, Jews, and Catholics. Several cities also joined the movement...

Although Secretary of State Haig had initially made El Salvador a major news story by announcing that the United States would hold the line against communism there, it soon became apparent to cooler heads in Washington that it was counterproductive to encourage press coverage of El Salvador: Much of the nastiness turned out to be the work of U.S. allies in the Salvadoran military...

Once American churchgoers heard the testimonies of Central American refugees, they began to question government statements previously taken at face value. That, for the Reagan administration, was the worrisome thing about the movement: Its members knew that the government was lying. In pre-Irangate days that was a real shock to a sector of the public that considered itself mainstream, even conservative...

At the same time, active nonviolence and civil disobedience were growing. Some 70,000 Americans signed a "Pledge of Resistance," promising to respond with peaceful sit-ins of government buildings in the event of a U.S. invasion or major military escalation anywhere in Central America. Arrests for civil disobedience jumped from 5,000 in 1984 to more than 11,000 in 1986...

Sanctuary churches officially came under government surveillance in April 1984 in an undercover investigation known as "Operation Sojourner" ...Between 1985 and 1986 there were break-ins at churches and the offices of legal aid groups helping the refugees in eleven cities. One Sanctuary church, the Old Cambridge (Massachusetts) Baptist Church, suffered eleven break-ins in four years. In each case the local police refused to investigate...

In the summer of 1987 a Salvadoran woman was kidnapped and tortured in Los Angeles. Before her release, she was warned by her captors to cease her work on behalf of Central American refugees... The government itself was quite open about its intimidation of local officials who showed any sympathy for the refugees' plight. For example, the office of New York State assemblyman Jose Serrano, sponsor of a resolution declaring the state a sanctuary for Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees, reported a call from an immigration agency lawyer who warned that Serrano "was committing a felony" by sponsoring the resolution. While denying that a threat had been made, the New York INS office announced that it planned to investigate whether state employees were breaking the law by obeying the resolution. Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney for northeastern California sent letters to the municipal governments of Sacramento and Davis, both sanctuary cities, threatening them with the suspension of federal aid if they did not end their support for Central American refugees. The letters were written with the approval of the INS and the Justice Department.

...sixteen Sanctuary workers, including three nuns and two priests were indicted in early 1985 on charges of smuggling illegal aliens into the United States... [Franciscan Sister Darlene Nicgorski], for example, had worked at a Guatemalan preschool and had seen firsthand how the Indian peasants were tortured and killed by the military. She had had to leave the country after the local pastor was murdered and the nuns were warned that they would be next. When she first began work with Sanctuary, Nicgorski said, she did not know that her actions were illegal but by the time she found out, "it no longer mattered." The Gospel call to walk with the oppressed, she said, did not mention anything about the poor needing to show proper documentation. "The protection of life is a religious activity. As a School Sister of St. Francis, I am committed to giving, healing and defending life... Religion is not just saying prayers and singing songs. The government can't tell us which people we can respond to and which ones we can't."

The Reagan administration did not want refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala to gain asylum because that would draw attention to the failure of its policies there.

...By the time the verdict was brought in at the Tucson trial... the publicity generated by it attracted many more recruits. In the interim the number of churches and synagogues belonging to Sanctuary climbed to 307, and the INS found itself slapped with a flurry of suits by angry religious denominations... Of the original sixteen, eight were found guilty of eighteen of seventy-one charges... By the fall of 1987 more than 400 churches and synagogues belonged, the largest being Catholic and Unitarian Universalist.

Pastor Fife spoke... of a "conversion" to the Christian faith - a return to the basic principles of the early church. "The refugees have clearly become the bearers of the new reformation taking place in the churches of Latin America," he said. "Call it liberation theology or the Holy Spirit or whatever you like, they have evangelized Sanctuary congregations and renewed them in spirit and in truth."

...In Latin America the base community movement began in a remote Brazilian village. Despite persecution and poverty the seed flourished, until it became a forest extending from the Rio Grande to Patagonia. It grew not by word but by example - the commitment of people who gave their lives for the poor. As Fife said, that was what Christianity was really about. Over the centuries it had been subverted by power and wealth, but the religious awakening in Latin America had jolted First World churches into a reexamination of faith.

Penny Lernoux, People of God, 1989, Penguin Books, New York.
October, 1976 - Father Patrick Rice, an Irish priest, met an armed man dressed in plain clothes in Villa Soldati, a slum area in Buenos Aires, Argentina:
We didn't know what to do. He fired a shot in the ground. He pointed his gun at us and asked for our identity papers. He seemed nervous. He fired another shot in the air. Another man came around the corner, also carrying a gun. They bundled the two of us into the back of the Jeep. At no time did they identify themselves. We didn't know who they were or where they were taking us.

They took us to Police Station 36. I was taken into a room and my shirt was pulled up over my head and face. They asked my name and where I lived. When I identified myself as a priest, they first demanded that I recite the Lord's Prayer in Latin, then they told me, "Now you'll find out that the Romans were very civilized toward the early Christians compared with what's going to happen to you." After this, they beat me, although I was not asked any questions.

Later than night I was put in the trunk of a car, my hands were tied behind my back, my head hooded. Fátima [Cabrera] was put in the back seat. We were taken to what I thought was a barracks [probably the Guemes Brigade near Buenos Aires' Ricchieri Freeway]. The man changing the hood said, "Don't look at me! If you do you're dead!" I was beaten again. By this time I was in a bad state.

They started with water torture. My nose was held and water was poured in my mouth. You swallow a lot of water and it has a drowning effect. My interrogators told me that they belonged to the AAA [a parapolice organization called the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance]. The beatings and drenching with water continued throughout Tuesday, October 12, at three- or four-hour intervals.

On Tuesday night they came and walked me to another room. Electric shocks were applied systematically to various parts of my body. They were also giving electric treatment to Fátima in the same room. All day Wednesday, October 13, they tortured Fátima - I could hear her screaming. I was told that I was accused of putting up propaganda slogans against the Army in Villa Soldati, which is a lie. They kept throwing water on us and increasing the shock and demanded that we give them the names of everyone we knew in the villa. They told me that I was stronger than Fátima and because of me they were going to destroy her. While denying their charges, I refused to give names, believing that anyone I knew would probably get the same treatment. This only increased their suspicion, but I think in the end they realized we didn't know anything. I was told by one of my interrogators, "I am also against violence and for that reason I won't kill you."

At one point I was able to lift the hood on my head and see the rest of the room. There were seven other prisoners there all with yellow hoods, chained to the wall, and two or three torturers were working in a torture chamber nearby. When they saw me moving the hood, they nearly lynched me with a cord around my neck. All day and night they kept torturing Fátima... her desperate screams drove me crazy.

Finally on Thursday, October 14, I was given a little water and allowed to go to the bathroom for the first time. Then I was brought to the person in charge and told "You have been in detention for eight hours." I was again bundled into the trunk of a car and taken to the Coordinación Federal [police headquarters for Buenos Aires, 1550 Moreno Street, Buenos Aires]. When I entered they asked me my name, but I couldn't answer because I could hardly speak. They beat me in the ribs and I fell down. Eventually I was taken to a small cell, given something to eat, and allowed to take a shower. I was horrified by all the marks on my body.

The following day Fátima was brought in and put in a cell near me. She told me that during the electric shock torture, they had stripped her and applied electric shocks to her mouth to stop her screaming. One of the officials took off the bandage covering her eyes and told her to take a good look at him because it was his life or hers. She said she prayed to God that she would die to end her suffering, and then she fell into a coma.

At police headquarters I was told to say that my black eye, a badly cut foot, and other signs of torture had been caused by my falling down some stairs. "If you say anything else, you'll be found in the river," they told me. Life at police headquarters is one continuous hell, with Swastika crosses painted on the passages, confinement for months without ever seeing the sun, terrible food, constant threats by the interrogators, and abuse by the guards, particularly of women prisoners...

A week after my arrest I was washed, shaved, and brought before the Irish ambassador. I was quite disoriented and the ambassador realized that it wasn't in my interests to talk about ill treatment. Later I signed a document that apparently cleared me of the charges. I thought therefore that I would be released in a few days, but I was transferred to Villo Devoto Prison and then to La Plata Prison [in the province of Buenos Aires], where I was held for five weeks until my deportation. I was not tortured anymore.

My Christian faith became very real to me. In such suffering Christ is almost physically present, and one's prayer is a despairing plea to God to save one, as indeed Christ's own cry on the cross was. At times the proximity of death filled me with fear and dread, and my whole being wanted to cling to life, but then it seemed as though I had been rescued by Christ, that I was able to resist this evil, irrespective of my well-being or even life itself...

Any Christian who defends the poor can expect to be persecuted and mistreated by the security police...

In their barbarity they destroyed an innocent young girl just to put pressure on me.

Rice was taken to London on December 3. He spent two weeks recovering in a psychiatric ward. Fátima Cabrera was kept in prison for another twelve months and was "released" into house arrest in December, 1977.

Rice was from County Cork, and had spent six years in Argentina as a worker-priest - spending part of his time as a carpenter on construction sites and part of it organizing evening and weekend prayer meetings in Villa Soldati.

Fátima Cabrera was 21 and worked as a part-time maid to support her younger brother and sister. She was with Rice only because she was asking him for medicine, because her sister had become ill with a serious nervous disorder.

Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People, 1980, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York.

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