End of an era for the Amazon's turbulent priests

Abaetetuba, Brazil - They avoid taking buses, make sure friends know their schedules, and rarely go out when it's dark.

For the three foreign-born Roman Catholic bishops under death threat in Brazil's northeastern state of Para, speaking out against social ills that plague this often-lawless area at the Amazon River's mouth has come at a price.

Yet they still noisily involve themselves in rights issues here, part of a tradition of Catholic priests who came to Latin America with their views formed by 1970s Liberation Theology that emphasizes justice for the poor and oppressed.

It is a tradition that is dying as the missionaries who came here in the 1960s, 70s and 80s grow older and the flow of priests from Europe and the United States dries up as fewer people enter the Church.

"When I first came here there were many more foreign priests. Now we go years without anyone new arriving," said Bishop Flavio Giovenale, a tall Italian with an infectious grin who began his first mission in Brazil 34 years ago.

For the past 11 years he has been the bishop of Abaetetuba, a dirt-poor riverbank town about 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of the state capital Belem. He has faced regular death threats for speaking out against social problems and crime that have steadily grown as the area became a transit point for cocaine shipped down the world's greatest river from Colombia.

At 54 he is one of the youngest of Para's 11 foreign-born bishops, who often find themselves on the front lines of rights battles due to high levels of violence, land disputes and drug trafficking combined with a widespread absence of government. The powerful, including corrupt politicians and police, are often the ones with most to lose from their denunciations.

Para, the second-biggest state in the world's largest Catholic nation, has a total of 13 bishops for a population of about 7 million people.


Latin America has historically been among the most dangerous regions for Catholic missionaries. Five Catholic clergy were murdered in the continent in 2008 out of 20 worldwide, according to Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The risks the clergy face in Brazil became clear in February 2005 when 73-year-old U.S. Catholic nun Dorothy Stang was gunned down holding her Bible in the remote Para town of Anapu, where she had been defending peasants' rights against powerful landowners.

Church and human rights officials say there is no shortage of Brazilian priests to take the place of the aging foreign-born bishops. But with lower profiles and family members living in the country, they are often more vulnerable to the threats.

"This era is over," said Joao Gierse, a 48-year-old priest who said no fellow Germans from the Franciscan order had followed him to Brazil since he was sent in 1990. "Europe itself doesn't have enough priests."

There were 2,803 foreign-born priests out of Brazil's total of 18,685 in 2007, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops said in a report. The group was unable to give comparative figure from previous years. In Europe, the number of Catholic priests fell 20 percent between 1978 and 2004, the Vatican said.

Many of the missionaries are community organizers who use their pulpits to highlight abuses that might otherwise go unchecked. Felicio Pontes, a federal prosecutor, remembers how Stang regularly visited him in Belem to denounce abuses in Anapu.

"They are a bridge between the people and us," he said.

On the island of Marajo at the mouth of the Amazon, Bishop Luiz Azcona serves an area half the size of Portugal, often traveling by boat for two days to reach distant mosquito-plagued islands.

The death threats against him began in 2007 after he started speaking out against child-prostitution rings that he says thrive in the largely unpoliced area.

"The three bishops under death threats in Para all have one thing in common -- the denunciations we made against the exploitation of children," said Spanish-born Azcona, 68.

The third bishop under threat in Para, 69-year-old Austrian-born Erwin Krautler, has had armed bodyguards around the clock for the past two years in his diocese of Altamira, from where he has denounced illegal logging and other illicit businesses as well as the handling of the Stang murder case.


All three bishops are to some extent dealing with the aftermath of unsustainable economic development. In Abaetetuba, the construction of a big aluminum plant in the 1980s drew thousands of migrant workers to the area, but there was no more demand for unskilled labor once it was up and running. With a lack of jobs, the drug trade has become central to the local economy.

"When this kind of exploitation of the Amazon finishes, the problems of child prostitution and other crimes are what are left behind," said Pontes.

The case that resulted in a renewed round of death threats against Giovenale was a combination of the poverty, brutality and impunity that scars remote Brazilian towns.

In October 2007, Abaetetuba police put a 15-year-old girl arrested for theft into a jail cell with more than 20 male prisoners, who raped and abused her for 21 days, prosecutors say. Giovenale says the police tortured the girl because she had tried to rob a police officer's house. More than a year later, several police officers have been transferred to other parts of the state but none has been tried or convicted.

"None of the state organs, those with power, reached out to us like the Church did. This is why we respect Bishop Flavio," said Diva Negrao-Andrade, a leader of a local children's rights group who helped rescue the girl and who also had death threats.

Both Azcona and Giovenale, who like many bishops here prefer shirt-sleeves to liturgical dress, have declined offers of police protection, saying they do not wish to endanger other people.

"To be honest I am scared a lot of the time, because I like to live," Giovenale said. "I don't know what I'll do if the threats come again, but I hope I will be able to continue to help because the people often don't have any other support."