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LATIN AMERICA: Catholic Church Renews &#39Option for the Poor&#39

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jul 16 2007 (IPS) - The Roman Catholic Church plans to undertake concrete projects in the next four years to help overcome poverty in Latin America, the region with the most glaring income inequalities in the world.

"The option for the poor is one of the challenges we have in the region," Monsignor Raymundo Damasceno Assis, archbishop of the Brazilian city of Aparecida and the new president of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), told IPS.

"It is above all up to Christian lay people to unite to overcome the structures of injustice in our countries, so that we may all have better living conditions," he added at the close of the first CELAM General Assembly to be held in Cuba.

The latest statistics from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) indicate that 205 million people live below the poverty line in this region, of whom 79 million are indigent (extremely poor).

Coinciding with this Assembly, which brought together 50 bishops from all over the region, Pope Benedict XVI authorised the release of the Aparecida document, approved by the bishops&#39 conference held in May in the Brazilian city of the same name.

In the Aparecida document, the bishops urge every local church to strengthen the Social Pastorates, so that their presence might be felt in the midst of "the new realities of exclusion and marginalisation experienced by the most vulnerable groups."

Globalisation, the bishops say, has led to the emergence of "new faces of the poor" and excluded, among whom they mention immigrants, victims of violence, human trafficking and kidnappings, displaced persons and refugees, the "disappeared," people with HIV/AIDS, those who live on city streets, miners and landless peasants.

"The Church&#39s Social Pastorate must welcome and support these excluded people wherever they are," the Latin American ecclesiastical hierarchy said in Aparecida. In the face of today&#39s globalisation that favours wealth accumulation and promotes inequity and injustice, the Church proposes another, characterised by justice, solidarity and respect for human rights, they said.

The 136-page document, divided in three sections and 10 chapters, gives an overview of the regional situation and expresses particular concern about problems such as drug addiction and drug trafficking, violence which mainly targets the poorest sectors and raises crime indices, and the dual marginalisation experienced by low-income women, indigenous people and Afro-descendants.

The "preferential option for the poor" is the basis of Liberation Theology, whose proponents&#39 involvement in the struggles of the poor and marginalised sectors of the Latin American population often brought them into conflict with a more conservative Catholic Church hierarchy in the past.

Damasceno Assis said that at the Havana meeting recommendations were made and tasks were distributed among CELAM officials, who will meet again in Bogotá in August to draw up concrete projects to flesh out the strategy approved in Aparecida for the next four years.

He also announced that the 32nd Ordinary Assembly of CELAM will take place in Managua in 2009.

The Jul. 10-13 meeting in Havana was hailed as historic, because it was held for the first time in Cuba. The bishops met with Cuban authorities, including vice-presidents Carlos Lage and Esteban Lazo, and asked them for facilities for thousands of young Latin Americans studying in Cuba to practice their religion and access spiritual help.

"They told us that this dialogue will continue, and that they are open to support these requests," the archbishop of Aparecida said.

The Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), created in 1999, alone receives 1,500 students annually, on Cuban government scholarships, from 24 countries – 19 within the region. Total student numbers are between 10,000 and 12,000 students, studying different years of the course.

Official sources said that at the meeting there was agreement about "the need for the training given to Latin American professionals in Cuba to continue potentiating human values and the conservation of their beliefs, traditions and customs, so that they can return to their communities of origin and serve those who are most in need."

One of ELAM&#39s principles is to train professionals "to a high level of scientific, humanist and ethical preparation and capacity for solidarity, so that they will be able to act within their environment to satisfy the needs of the region and contribute to sustainable human development."

The Latin American bishops made no direct comment on at least three letters received from internal dissident sectors in Cuba, requesting that they mediate on behalf of prisoners and other humanitarian cases. Instead they decided to hand these matters over to the local Catholic Church.

"CELAM&#39s presidency has put these matters into the hands of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is the right body to dialogue with the national authorities on the matters raised in these letters," said a note distributed to journalists at the end of a press conference.

Relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government, which had been through tense times in the past, began to improve ever since the preparations for the visit in January 1998 of Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005.

Cuban curia sources have told IPS that the dialogue that was opened at that time has been maintained to date, although the situation is not idyllic, nor are all problems solved.

"There are steps still to be taken, but it cannot be said that (relations) are bad. Our communication with the present head of the Office of Religious Affairs, Caridad Diego, is fluent, and problems are solved in a friendly manner," said Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, vicar general of Havana, in an interview with Enfoques, a publication of the IPS news agency in Havana.

At the Havana meeting, CELAM also elected new officers: the first vice president is Baltazar Porras Cardozo, archibishop of Mérida, Venezuela; the second vice president is Andrés Stanovnik, bishop of Reconquista, Argentina. Emilio Aranguren Echeverría, bishop of Holguín, Cuba, is to head the Financial Committee.

Víctor Sánchez Espinosa, auxiliary bishop of Mexico, was elected general secretary of CELAM.

Founded in 1955, CELAM&#39s administrative centre is in Bogotá. It represents the 22 episcopal conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean, and it re-elects its officers every four years.

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