Salvador's Church Leaders Say Repression Is At A Peak

Posted: November 29, 1989

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A wave of army raids on church institutions - coupled with scores of arrests and death threats - constitute the worst religious repression in 10 years of civil war, church leaders said yesterday.

More than 50 people affiliated with church groups have been arrested in the two weeks since rebels launched the biggest offensive of the war.

Presidential press spokesman Mauricio Sandoval yesterday defended the army raids as legal under the official state of siege that was declared when the offensive began. He justified the raids as necessary because the government believes that the guerrillas are hiding weapons in the churches.

Weapons that the government said had been stashed by the guerrillas were displayed this week at the home of Jennifer Casolo, an American who worked with a Texas-based church group. But no weapons have been found in any of the raids on churches, Sandoval acknowledged.

He said the raids and arrests "in no way represent a policy against the church."

"There is not a policy, nor will there be a policy, against the church," he said in an interview. "I assure you that the president in no way . . .

takes this attitude. . . . Relations with the church have been excellent."

San Salvador's archbishop, Arturo Rivera y Damas, disagreed.

In a recent news conference, he said the military actions against the church were worse than those in 1980. Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and four American churchwomen were murdered that year, and several churches were bombed or sprayed with machine-gun fire.

Archbishop Rivera y Damas' condemnation of the army was prompted by the Nov. 16 murders of six Jesuit priests, including the rector and vice rector of San Salvador's only Catholic university.

The archbishop blamed the army and its allies in right-wing death squads for the murders.

Archbishop Rivera y Damas said that in no other Christian country had the church suffered repression as in El Salvador, where at least 20 priests and church workers have been slain in the last decade.

The day after the Nov. 16 killings, army troops broke into Christ Savior Church, where one of the slain priests had served as pastor in 1985.

One of the current parish priests, who asked not to be named, said the soldiers sprayed the church walls with gunfire, stole the church sound system and the priests' vestments and then hung a sign outside warning, "Do not enter: area mined."

Christ Savior Church, which is near a low-income apartment complex that was occupied by rebels for five days during their offensive, has long been linked to the left.

After the church was bombed on Christmas Day 1980, the Rev. Rogelio Ponseele, then its pastor, joined the guerrillas. He still serves as a guerrilla priest in the mountains.

The current parish priest said the army had long considered the church a training ground for rebel recruits, but did not take action until the current guerrilla offensive.

Sandoval said he was unaware of the attack on Christ Savior Church but promised a full investigation. He said that if soldiers had vandalized the church, it was sparked by anger about the rebel offensive.

Other church agencies that have been raided include the offices of Catholic Relief Services, a Catholic school and several refugee centers. Both Archbishop Rivera y Damas and Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez have received death threats. Neither has left El Salvador.

A report last week by the Americas Watch human rights agency said the government was trying "to force out of the country groups of people they see as political opponents."

"Overwhelmingly, those being threatened and, in some cases, forced to flee, are individuals engaged in religious or relief work on behalf of the poor," the report said.

Whatever the purpose of the arrests and searches, many church workers have been frightened.

The Rev. James Barnett, an American Catholic priest who worked in the capital's eastern suburb of Soyapango, left the country after a Nov. 14 death threat, church officials said.

A priest and six church workers fled the western town of Teotepeque after fliers denounced them as "enemies of the people directed by communists, who want to convert you to become murderers."

Gloria Guzman, 24, who heads the Teotepeque church's women's organization, said the fliers were handed out by soldiers from the local army garrison. Guzman, who said her father and two brothers were killed by the military in 1982, conceded that many people from church organizations had joined the guerrillas.

"A lot of people have gone (with the guerrillas). It's an option, and a just option," Guzman said.

She said the army singled out the Teotepeque church because its parishioners had supported a series of public demonstrations during the last year in favor of peace negotiations with the guerrillas. The army has charged that rebel front organizations sponsored the demonstrations.

The pressure has not been directed just at Catholics.

American Lutheran Pastor William Dexheimer fled the country after receiving a death threat on Nov. 14. And Americas Watch reported that Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez went into hiding after he received a death threat.

The military's biggest raid so far was on Nov. 16, when National Guardsmen seized 12 foreigners working with the Lutherans' refugee relief program, and police ransacked their San Salvador office.

The foreigners were released on the condition that they leave the country.

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