Top ten religion stories in El Salvador for 2007

Another insightful contribution from our friend Carlos X. Colorado.

By Carlos X. Colorado

Although 99.1% of Salvadorans believe in God, 10% have had doubts and 16.8% do not identify with a particular religion, according to a La Prensa Gráfica poll. The bad news is absorbed mostly by the Catholic Church, which had an 83% claim on adherents in 1992 but has seen that figure slashed to 52.4% according to the LPG poll. The winners are Protestants who have seen their ranks rise to 28.4% of souls. Despite their ascendant status, Catholic stories dominate the headlines, as attested to below.


Catholic News Service placed Hernández at the top of its list of notable Catholics to die around the world in 2007. CNS recalled that, "Hernández, 68, [had] for more than two decades led the San Salvador Archdiocese's internationally recognized human rights agency Tutela Legal." The report continued, "Hernández had worked alongside Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, who was killed in 1980, just one of many flash points for human rights advocates in a decade-long civil war between the military government and civilian rebels. Upon taking over as head of Tutela Legal in 1982, Hernandez established a long record of objective investigations of abuses committed by the Salvadoran military and the rebels." In a parting shot, just weeks before her passing, Hernández was able to put the kibosh on ARENA's plan to bestow national honors on Major Roberto d'Aubuisson, believed to be the mastermind behind numerous grotesque crimes, including the Romero assassination.


As first reported [by Carlos] in Tim's El Salvador Blog a year before the fact (and as required by Canon Law, 538 §3), the Archbishop of San Salvador, Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, announced that he submitted his resignation letter to Pope Benedict XVI on November 16, 2007, the day of the anniversary of the UCA Massacre and, more importantly, Sáenz' 75th birthday. Sáenz' very public, almost boisterous, announcement made it clear that he intended to be excused from service rather than to continue to serve, which he can, at the Pope's pleasure. Sáenz told the press that his ministry had been "tiring" and it is no secret that the left in particular will be glad to see Sáenz go. Sáenz' legacy will be that he reigned in Liberation Theology in E.S. and he completed the Cathedral.


The biggest splash of any of our stories was made by the Vatican “notification” of a number of "erroneous or dangerous propositions" in two books by El Salvador's leading theologian, the Spanish-born Father Jon Sobrino, SJ. Sobrino is almost the Ratzinger of the Left, considered to be among the brightest theologians, and revered by progressive elements for his life long commitment to the "liberation" (theological and maybe otherwise) of the poor. Even the Vatican took pains to laud Sobrino's intentions, and Archbishop Sáenz announced that, basically, nothing would be done to actually punish or censure Sobrino (he would not, for example, be banished from writing, speaking, or teaching). The story, however, was taken very hard by Sobrino's progressive allies, and it will probably take years to undo the hurt.


Tutela Legal accused El Salvador of not complying with OAS recommendations for justice in the assassination of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero, killed March 24, 1980, before the beginning of the Civil War. A broader controversy erupted when the civil society learned that the Church had been quietly dealing with the Saca government over the Romero case in a private capacity. A broad coalition of organizations wrote Archbishop Sáenz, who gave assurances that the consultations were only tentative, would not be binding, and input from society would be sought before any final decisions. Meanwhile, Sáenz quietly fired his lawyer, whose boisterous exit only fanned the flames. The story showed how a complete lack of reckoning over civil war atrocities continues to fuel dissatisfaction and distrust of the post-war peace (see also, story no. 10).


The Roman Catholic bishops of Latin America gathered for their fifth, ten-year continental conference this year. This is the same conference that gave the world the Medellín documents in 1968 and Puebla in 1979, which outlined the idea that the Church in Latin America must take a "preferential option for the poor." This mandate emboldened the San Salvador clergy to take prophetic stances during the 1970s and 80s, and the conference at Aparacida confirmed that mission, albeit, with some qualifications. The Aparacida documents were much revised after the conference, with accusations of re-writes flying around. In the end, the legacy of Aparecida appears murky, with all sides seeing what they want to see, and the Salvadoran Church, like others, is still digesting it.


Adrian Esquino Lisco and Rufina Amaya were each the last of their kind. As head of the National Indigenous Association of El Salvador (ANIS), Esquino Lisco was the Dalai Lama of El Salvador’s nearly extinct indigenous population. Amaya was known as the sole survivor of the 1981 Atlacátl Battalion massacre at El Mozote. Both became notable voices in favor of historical memory and conscience in El Salvador, in a society eager to put the past behind and find the quickest onramp to the road to prosperity and globalization. Seldom have the stories of so many depended on the memory of so few.


This was a quiet year for the Romero canonization cause, with few developments in the martyr bishop's arduous road to sainthood. But, you would never know it based on his high profile in the press. Pope Benedict tipped his hand on the beatification prospects to the press. "That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt," he said. Tony Saca's administration became the first Salvadoran government to recognize Romero's legacy by lobbying the Vatican for his beatification (also a first). Not to be left behind, Hugo Chávez' government hosted a conference and inaugurated a website dedicated to El Salvador's fourth archbishop. Finally, in England, activist Catholics established the Archbishop Romero Trust to promote devotion to Romero in the UK.


In May, the country's eleven bishops signed a joint pastoral letter warning against the dangers of commercial mining, just as the country debated the entry of Canadian and other mining interests. The statement was surprisingly specific: "human life being put in danger, even if economic benefits could be obtained, mining for precious metals should not be permitted in El Salvador. No material advantage can compare to the value of human life." The letter's impact was debatable, since the government had already stated that it would not permit the mining. However, it was the first local manifestation of a perceived emphasis on environmental issues for the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI.


After decades of quietly eating away at the centuries old Roman Catholic monopoly on souls, Evangelical groups have continued to flex their muscle. Multitudinous Evangelical rallies swarmed “Mágico” González stadium in March. In November, they filled a pavilion of the old world's fair grounds, drawing such high profile attendees as President Saca. To attest to the political influence of the Evangelicals, this year the FMLN ticket, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, have already met with representatives of the fundamentalist churches. According to the LPG poll cited above, 72.2% of Evangelicals attend religious services, versus 50.3% for the Roman Catholic Church, which is enough to make them a formidable social force in El Salvador.


That’s what Salvadorans wondered on the year that marked the 15th anniversary of the Peace Accords. Commemorations of the milestone were separately marked by the Left and the Right, who each boycotted the others’ ceremonies. Meanwhile, ordinary Salvadorans faced the reality that death by unnatural causes occurred at rates in 2007 that were reminiscent of the civil war years. Ghastly crimes included (albeit, outside the national borders) the still unsolved murders of ARENA deputies to the Central American congress, including the son of Major Roberto d’Aubuisson. A jittery society trembled at the prospect of untold chickens from the death squad years coming home to roost – a fear that has proved, so far, unfounded. This is the peace Salvadorans have: a mano dura peace, where MS-13 graffiti is literally the handwriting on the wall.


Hodad said…
great post
but what about the two Lutheran married couple assassinated?
Anonymous said…
Hodad, without a doubt that story merits reflection as we look back on the year. Unfortunately, I committed myself to ten stories and we had a very busy year. It is part, however, of the other stories we recount, especially #10.
Tim said…
In addition, the murder of the Carillos happened in 2006. We just passed the sad one year anniversary, with no progress towards the apprehension of the killers.