Murder in the Cathedral

GUATEMALA CITY -- The murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi at his residence Sunday night poses a grave challenge to the country's fledgling peace process, and puts the two-year-old government of President Alvaro Azu to its biggest test so far.Gerardi, was a widely-respected senior cleric and an outspoken critic of the political violence which racked the country for 36 years. He founded and headed the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese.The brutal nature of the event -- at least one unidentified person dragged the bishop from his car as he arrived home and beat him until he lay lifeless -- is seen as a strong message to rights workers. It came just two days after a solemn ceremony in which Gerardi and other bishops presented a detailed, four-volume report on 442 massacres and other violence.The report, three years in the making, named more than 55,000 persons who died during civil conflict between 1978 and 1995. It found the army responsible for 79.9 percent of the killings of unnamed civilians, the guerrillas for 9 percent, and unknown perpetrators for the remainder. Members of the diplomatic corps and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu attended the mass of reconciliation at which the report was unveiled. They heard Gerardi speak passionately about the need for accepting the truth in the path to national reconciliation."Gerardi's murder undermines the little faith that exists in the peace process, and raises the worst fears that it is failing," said a long-time observer of human rights in the region, who asked that his name not be used. "Its meaning depends on whether it is investigated and brought to trial."Monsignor Mario Orantes, pastor of San Sebastian Church, where Gerardi resided, said he found the bishop's body in the garage around midnight when he went to turn off a light that Gerardi usually turned off when he returned from his customary Sunday visits to his family."There was a cadaver completely bloodied, and two big pools of blood."At first, I didn't recognize him because they had destroyed the face, but I recognized him by his Bishop's ring," Orantes told Radio Sonora. By dawn, mourning relatives, nuns, and clergy were standing in the church parking lot along with members of the U.N. mission for the verification of human rights, church sources said. There was no sign of robbery.The government did not appear to react swiftly in public to the attack. While many Guatemalans heard the news first from foreign radio and TV broadcasts, most local stations kept to sports and other programming in the early morning. One filled time with a lengthy editorial attacking Jennifer Harbury, the U.S. lawyer who threw a spotlight on rights abuses by the army.Several Roman Catholic priests and lay workers, and hundreds of catechists, died during the civil war, virtually all of them at the army's hands. In the early 1980s, Gerardi took the step -- extremely rare in the Catholic Church worldwide -- of temporarily shutting down his diocese of Quiche, which was most affected by the violence -- 263 massacres, according to the report-- and where many church people were killed.Gerardi himself narrowly escaped assassination on a pastoral visit at that time, when a peasant who overheard plans for an ambush ran to warn him. Some church workers expressed feelings of guilt for abandoning these communities, although others said that closing down the church in Quiche was the only way to save those workers who were left. At times, mass was held in hiding. In recent years, even after the worst of the war was over, the bespeckled Gerardi was untiring in recording rights abuse, speaking out about forced disappearances and threats to student and labor leaders and rights activists.The report which Gerardi oversaw, called "Guatemala: Never Again," was the work of the Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory, headquartered in a warren of offices behind this city's centuries-old cathedral. The researchers, well-educated Guatemalans, some of whom had returned after years of exile to work in a new atmosphere of promise as the war ended, took their tape recorders and notebooks on jungle rivers and mountain trails to small towns and searched out hidden settlements of survivors. Some 61 percent of the testimonies were given in Maya Indian languages.The murder of Gerardi recalls the assassination of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, at the hands of a right-wing death squad. Romero, a champion of human rights during that country's civil war, called on soldiers not to obey orders that would put them in a position of killing unarmed countrymen.Late last year, Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and Bishop Raul Vega, who was accompanying him, survived an ambush by gunmen. Ruiz has denounced the heavy military presence and the existence of pro-government paramilitaries, which he says obstruct the search for a peaceful solution to insurrection in that state.Gerardi's death came 16 months after the signing of accords between guerrillas in the government.PNS Central America editor Mary Jo McConahay has reported from Latin America for National Catholic Reporter, Choices, Mother Jones and other publications for over a decade.


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