Protests From Guatemala's Pulpits

San Miguel Ixtahuacan, Guatemala - The Rev. Eric Gruloos strode around a church classroom in this hillside hamlet, holding up a melon-size rock.

"They have not told us the truth about the mine!" he charged, as nearly 30 Catholic parishioners took notes.

The rock, he explained, was the kind that comes from the big open-pit gold mine that huge bulldozers are carving out of the mountains nearby -- a multimillion-dollar project that Catholic Church officials have vehemently protested from the pulpit, on a church-owned radio station and in street demonstrations led by the local bishop.

Gruloos rattled off statistics about arsenic and other contaminants that can come from rocks like the one in his hand. He spoke of the potential environmental dangers of mining, slowly explaining basic science to his indigenous parishioners, almost none of whom had finished primary school.

"We have to be strong so we are not manipulated," Gruloos said. "Some are upset that the church is speaking out against the mine. But we are doing what Jesus did. He came to wake people up to injustice."

The Catholic Church's aggressive opposition to the mine project, being built by a Canadian company and backed by the Guatemalan government, is the kind of grass-roots political and social activism by clergymen that dominated Latin America a generation ago, when outspoken priests and bishops openly challenged authoritarian governments.

During the nearly 27 years of Pope John Paul II's tenure, such aggressive social agitation faded with the arrival of a new generation of more conservative priests more closely aligned with the Vatican. While liberal as well as conservative clergymen campaign for Latin America's most marginalized people, they have markedly different philosophies about how to do it. Both sides stand with the poor, but the liberals are far more likely to march with them, too.

Reconciling the differing approaches to the church's role in social justice issues in Latin America will be a major challenge for John Paul's successor, according to interviews with clergymen and church scholars.

"We need to examine our consciences and change. We have forgotten our fundamental commitment to poor people," said Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, the activist in charge of the diocese that includes San Miguel, a small town tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains and reachable by a single dirt road.

In January, Ramazzini led an anti-mine protest through the streets of San Marcos, the provincial capital. He told protesters that the foreign interests behind the mine profited from Guatemala's natural resources while bringing little benefit to poor residents.

The march was a direct challenge to President Oscar Berger, whose government says the mine is environmentally safe and will bring hundreds of much-needed jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue. Michael Steeves, a mining company spokesman reached in Reno, Nev., said he was "baffled" by the church's opposition to the mine and cited the same benefits mentioned by the president.

In a rare public spat with the church, Berger accused Ramazzini of organizing a second anti-mine demonstration, in which one protester was killed in a confrontation with police. Ramazzini said he does not advocate violence and had nothing to do with that incident, and Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruno of Guatemala City publicly rebuked Berger, saying his comments made it seem that "the government only responds to the interests of transnational companies." Shortly afterward, Ramazzini received a death threat; he is now accompanied by government bodyguards round-the-clock.

"Even some of my colleagues tell me not to become so involved, to be quiet," said Ramazzini, 57, who has led previous protests over working conditions in the huge coffee plantations in his diocese and over land rights issues plaguing his indigenous parishioners.

"But for me it is a matter of conscience," he said. "If we don't evangelize to help poor people, it's not the evangelizing of Jesus Christ, and we have to ask ourselves what kind of evangelizing we are doing."

More conservative church leaders argue that the church, while vigorously defending the poor, should concentrate more on spiritual matters and generally leave politics to politicians. That approach is most often expressed by deeply orthodox groups of the church, such as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ, which thrived in Latin America with John Paul's support.

"There are diverse ways the church can protest," said Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle of neighboring El Salvador, an Opus Dei member appointed by John Paul in 1995. "One can be marching in front of a group of people on the street, the other could be producing a measured document that is as strong as necessary."

Saenz, in an interview, said it was preferable to have laypeople fighting political battles. But he said training and supporting those people does not mean the church is distancing itself from social justice issues.

While church leadership in the region has become generally conservative, there are still many examples of church agitation on social issues. The church in Guatemala has been involved in investigating government abuses during the country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. And Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, considered among the contenders to be the next pope, has publicly preached against mining and spoken out on other environmental issues.

In San Miguel, a cluster of low-slung, whitewashed buildings not far from the Mexican border, many parishioners said they felt largely abandoned by their government. They said they wanted active leadership from the church to help them fight for their rights.

"We are not very educated here," said Carnuto Andres Lopez, 53, who was listening to Gruloos's lessons about the mine. "I feel good with the father here because he explains things and motivates us."

San Miguel represents the misery that afflicts all of Guatemala, where a majority of the 14 million people are Catholic but the number of Protestants is growing rapidly. Poverty and illiteracy are rampant; Gruloos said fewer than one in five people in San Miguel finishes primary school. There are few jobs, and Gruloos said the most ambitious and motivated residents migrate to the United States.

"The new pope has a responsibility to put the church's words into action," said David Diaz, 23, an announcer on San Miguel's church-run radio station, Stereo Archangel, which carries regular anti-mine messages to homes scattered across thousands of tiny mountain villages.

Many here fondly recalled the activist approach by Catholic clergymen who reigned during Central America's civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, when many members of the clergy sided with rebel groups against U.S.-backed authoritarian governments. Many of those priests adhered to liberation theology, an activist philosophy of fighting poverty and oppression; for some of them, that meant supporting rebel groups that espoused Marxist-inspired social revolution.

The pope, a staunch anti-communist, cracked down on that movement by appointing a generation of more conservative church leaders in Latin America. That served to silence many of the region's more activist priests, even those who had nothing to do with communism.

Others were silenced by violence: Many priests and nuns were assassinated by government thugs or killed in the crossfire during civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. An outspoken Salvadoran archbishop, Oscar Romero, was shot to death in 1980 while saying Mass. Vatican officials this month announced that Romero was being considered for beatification, a first step toward sainthood and a move some hope will revive the spirit of his activism.

Parishioners in San Miguel said the church's vocal opposition to the mine is a common-sense blueprint for how the clergy should behave, one they hope the next pope will embrace.

"We believe that Jesus Christ was for the people who have no voice," said parishioner Timoteo Tojil Sanchez, 36, who came to a class given by Gruloos on how to organize opposition to mining. "If the church didn't exist, we would have no one to defend our rights. I don't care where the next pope is from. I just want him to be against injustice and defend the poor."

Tojil and others said they have seen what an activist church can achieve. The Guatemalan government in February announced that it would honor its commitment to Glamis Gold Ltd., the company building the mine, but that it would freeze issuance of any further mining permits. A special commission of government and church leaders has been created to discuss the future of mining in the country.