Top 10 Religious Stories from El Salvador in 2013

The eruption of the volcano in San Miguel postponed the normal year end stories in the blog.   I'll keep updating the situation with the volcano,  but want to share with everyone this guest post from our good friend Carlos Colorado:

Top 10 Religious Stories for 2013

A new CID-Gallup poll out at the end of the year confirmed—yet again—what has been the consistent story in El Salvador, in Latin America, and throughout the world, about the growing encroachment of secularism and the waning influence of religion generally and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. In El Salvador, other Christian denominations—especially Evangelicals—have benefitted directly from the Catholic Church’s decline. Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar was candid in recognizing his Church’s situation: “Twenty five years ago,” he acknowledged, “the percentage of Catholics was very high, above 90%. Now it borders on maybe 60 or 70%.” That said, 60 or 70% is still a majority and, in politics, 60 or 70% counts as a resounding landslide. Despite undeniable setbacks, the majority Church dominated this year’s top religious stories (good and bad) out of El Salvador.

1. The closing of Tutela Legal

When Archbishop Escobar decided to shutter the archdiocesan legal aid office whose work related back to an entity established by legendary Archbishop Oscar Romero, his decision stunned the human rights community, sent ripples around the world and was met with universal disapproval. Many were reminded by the similarly perplexing decision by Msgr. Escobar at the end of 2011 to remove the famous tile façade of the San Salvador Cathedral. Both decisions were unilateral moves, implemented without warning or consultation, and the motives behind them attracted suspicion when evolving (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) explanations were advanced. In the case of Tutela Legal, Msgr. Escobar has announced that he is reconstituting the office and that it will reopen next month.

2. El Salvador’s “harsh” abortion law—the Beatriz case

As noted in several stories in Tim’s Blog this year, El Salvador’s abortion laws are considered among the toughest in the world because they allow no exceptions and can entail jail terms of up to 30 years. A 22 year-old named Beatriz was the focus of an international push to ease restrictions when the young woman faced a life-threatening pregnancy that would typically be terminated in other countries. Her fetus was believed to be missing chunks of its brain and was basically given no chance to survive. But abortion is illegal in El Salvador. Large portions of the population support existing law (but activists say that support is eroding, especially when the mother’s health is in danger) and Salvadoran governments have been unwilling to challenge their populist base. Even the Fantastic Four (the seemingly fearless new members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court) were unwilling to intervene. She delivered by C-section and the baby died within a couple of days.

3. Pope Francis “Unblocks” Archbishop Romero’s Beatification Cause

After years in limbo, progress came this year in the Vatican’s efforts to have Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until his assassination in 1980, declared a saint. The breakthrough appears to owe exclusively to personnel changes in the Vatican: the appointment of Msgr. Gerhard Ludwig Muller as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith last year and—most importantly—the election of Pope Francis this year. Msgr. Muller moved swiftly last year to overrule stale accusations by the right that Romero’s teachings were imbued with a Marxist taint. One month after being elected, Pope Francis gave the go-ahead for the cause to proceed. If things go well, Salvadorans could well be celebrating their first saint in the next couple of years (step one, called beatification, would come even before then; canonization could be in time for the centennial of Romero’s birth in 2017).

4. Catholic Church’s drift on the gang truce

When El Salvador’s gang truce was originally introduced, the papal nuncio—the Pope’s ambassador before the state—accompanied Bishop Fabio Colindres, who, together with a retired legislator, forged an agreement with Salvadoran gang members that led to a dramatic decrease in gang related killings in the country. The details of those negotiations, including the extent to which the government lent the negotiators cover and/or official sanction remains murky, as does the question of the Church’s role. The presence of the Pope’s representative originally led many to assume that the Church was backing the truce, but subsequent official pronouncements, including several this year, question that assumption. Now the role appears to be critical of the truce, both in terms of process and results. All of the questions deserve answers, but the truce itself appeared to be an answer of sorts—a desperately needed one.

5. Ghosts from El Salvador’s military past

El Salvador’s conscience is often haunted by ghosts from its military past. 2013 had its fair share, and the most prevalent were the decision by Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court that a former general could not serve as minister of security, and the immigration trial of the former vice minister of defense in the U.S., which opened a window on the government’s part in various human rights crimes from the Salvadoran civil war. The right had hoped to make an issue out of the FMLN presidential candidate’s link to various deaths when he served as guerrilla commander during the war, but that story does not appear to have legs.

6. New voices on ethical questions, human rights

The excellent web magazine El Faro has named El Salvador’s Attorney General Luis Martínez its personality of the year, and with good reason. Martínez has turned out to be an independent voice. Even though he comes from an ARENA background, his highest profile investigation so far is that of former ARENA president Francisco Flores, in connection with an allegedly missing $10 million grant from the government of Taiwan. Also joining the fray in favor of transparency and reform is David Morales, who was named El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman. He comes from Tutela Legal (see story #1), having been sacked from that institution by the ex-archbishop, Msgr. Fernando Sáenz.

7. Vatican extends influence

Two stories that didn’t make a splash will influence the country for years. In February, outgoing Pope Benedict XVI named Msgr. Leon Kalenga Badikebele, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the new apostolic nuncio—effectively, the Vatican’s ambassador to El Salvador. He is a top notch diplomat, having previously served as nuncio to Ghana, and having recently added Belize and Antilles to his plate. He will be instrumental in naming new bishops in the country. Additionally, the Holy See became an official observer at SICA, the Central American commonwealth, and with the Salvadoran gang truce (see story #4), a similar process in Honduras, and with Honduran Cardinal Maradiaga being dubbed “vice pope,” it adds up to a lot of influence in the region.

8. San Salvador Archdiocese celebrates 100 years

The ecclesial jurisdiction of San Salvador was raised to the dignity of an “Arch”-diocese by Pope St. Pius X in 1913. As a result, the archbishop of San Salvador is a “metropolitan bishop” (and the San Salvador Cathedral is a “Metropolitan Cathedral”). All this means is that San Salvador is the lead diocese in the country, and the other bishops are “suffragan bishops.” The result of all this is that the Archbishop of San Salvador has effectively been confirmed as the ‘Primate’ of the country, and no one has embodied that role as much as Oscar Romero (see story #3). Not surprisingly, the closing mass of the celebrations focused on Romero and his expected beatification.

9. Success of Ciudad Mujer

The wildly popular First Lady Vanda Pignato received the prestigious French Légion d’Honneur medal for her pioneering work to establish the women’s service centers called Ciudad Mujer. In essence, the Brazilian born (she speaks Spanish with a pronounced accent) lawyer and human rights activist has revolutionized the First Lady’s role. She is Eleanor Roosevelt and Angelina Jolie rolled into one. Concentrating public services in ‘one-stop’ centers relating to health, job training, physical abuse and other interests, Ciudad Mujer is addressing Salvadoran women’s issues in ways no one had ever done.

10. Burning of San Esteban

Finally, a wistful note, one of San Salvador’s last remaining wooden Churches burnt to the ground at the beginning of the year. The Church had been hit hard by the ravages of time, and had almost been brought down by the 2001 earthquakes. She withstood a barrage of natural and man-made assaults, but succumbed to an electric fire near the altar. Her Belgian crafted aluminum and wood façade will be sorely missed in this gritty and sometimes harsh capital city.