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ECUADOR: Bishop Fasts for Reconciliation in Jungle Province

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Jun 8 2011 (IPS) - Catholic bishop emeritus Gonzalo López Marañón has been fasting since May 24 in a park in the Ecuadorian capital to call for peace and reconciliation in Sucumbíos, an Amazon province immersed in a conflict over the Vatican’s decision to put the diocese in the hands of an ultra-conservative Catholic order.

With his habitual smile, the 77-year-old former bishop of Sucumbíos is wrapped in a poncho and wearing a woollen scarf, hat and gloves, despite the sunshine in the park where he is camping out, because he has lost eight kilos in 15 days and can’t shake the cold. In the past two weeks, he has had to put up with several cold, rainy days, and even a hailstorm, even though the dry season starts in June.

But he converses, sitting on the grass, with the groups that continuously show up to greet him, from Quito and Sucumbíos.

The backdrop to the fast is a clash between two very different approaches to the Catholic Church’s pastoral care in Sucumbíos: that of the community-based Discalced (or Barefoot) Carmelites, who work on behalf of the poor and focus on social questions like health and education, and to which López Marañón belongs, and that of the far-right Heralds of the Gospel order.

When López Marañón retired in October as bishop of the province after 40 years in the post, the Vatican turned the diocese – which had been in the hands of the Carmelites for 80 years – over to the Heralds of the Gospel.

The arrival of the Heralds drew widespread opposition in the complex social and political scenario in the northeastern province, which borders civil war-torn Colombia.

In March 2008, Raúl Reyes, a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, was killed at his camp in the Sucumbíos jungle in a cross-border military raid by Colombia, which triggered a serious diplomatic crisis.

The province is also the site of the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe in the world, caused by U.S. oil giant Chevron.

“I have seen the transformation (of the province) from a jungle area with isolated indigenous communities to a magnet for internal migration after the discovery of oil,” which began to be exported in 1972, said López Marañón, who took over the diocese in 1970, at the age of 37.

He described the broad range of logging, farming and commercial activities in the remote province, which now has airports and paved roads, as well as a wide gap between rich and poor and severe pollution caused by the oil industry.

Because Sucumbíos borders Colombia, the authorities are constantly engaged in the fight against smugglers of products like fuel, and against arms and drug traffickers, which also leads to a heavy military presence. The area is also the main destination in Ecuador for thousands of refugees displaced by the violence in Colombia.

“This isn’t a hunger strike, but a fast,” the bishop emeritus’s spokeswoman, María de los Ángeles Vaca, told IPS. “The difference is that this is a religious act, accompanied by prayer and dialogue, in the search for peace.”

López Marañón is only receiving liquids. “But he is fine, the doctor tells us his vital signs are stable,” she added.

The bishop emeritus says he will continue to fast until there are signs of reconciliation between the groups in conflict.

Left-wing President Rafael Correa has visited the camp in the park twice. López Marañón has also received visits from civil and religious authorities and hundreds of Catholic faithful from Quito, and from delegations of young people, women, peasant farmers, craftspeople and workers from Sucumbíos.

Ecuador’s bishops’ conference, presided over by Antonio Arregui, archbishop of the city of Guayaquil and a member of Opus Dei, another ultra-conservative Catholic order, has not made any official statements on the situation.

“But the bishops have come to my little tent,” López Marañón said.

Indeed, while IPS was in the park, the bishop emeritus was visited by bishops from the northwestern province of Esmeraldas and the eastern province of Orellana, and at least four other bishops had come in previous days. And bishops from countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama have expressed their solidarity with him by letter.

Moreover, the tent in which the bishop emeritus is fasting, and where he sleeps on the ground, is no longer on its own. It is surrounded by about 10 other tall white tents, some of which have been joined together to create an improvised chapel. “We already have a cathedral,” López Marañón jokes.

The tension among the Catholic community in Sucumbíos began when the priest Rafael Ibarguren, a leading member of the Heralds of the Gospel, was named as the province’s apostolic vicar. The Argentine priest was to be a temporary replacement for López Marañón, at the head of the diocese.

Ibarguren was instructed by the Vatican to bring about a shift in the Church’s pastoral care, away from the social focus taken by the Carmelites for 80 years.

The Heralds of the Gospel priests showed up in the tropical rainforest region wearing their medieval-looking habits, consisting of knee-length black riding boots, a white cassock with a large brown scapular bearing a half white, half red cross extending from neck to hem with arms in the shape of fleurs-de-lys, and chains at the waist.

The fast-growing Brazilian-based order, recognised in 2001 by the Vatican, lives by military as well as religious discipline. Their style and attitude towards the Church’s social work sparked resistance from the local population in Nueva Loja, the provincial capital.

“They had no idea of the strength and capacity of community organising here,” Dolores de León, a Quito resident familiar with the work of the Discalced Carmelites, told IPS.

Meanwhile, the Heralds mobilised demonstrations by wealthy segments of the population in Nueva Loja, who clashed with the people protesting the arrival of the new order.

After several confrontations, six Carmelite priests who were still in Sucumbíos were expelled on May 2 by the order of the Vatican, on the grounds that they were inciting the local population to protest.

Further clashes forced the Heralds to pull out of the area on May 19, after the government gave the Catholic Church 24 hours to clear up the tension in Sucumbíos.

Before that, the government had threatened to refuse to recognise the order, which is not registered in Ecuador.

There are now only diocesan priests – who don’t belong to any order – in the diocese, which is currently being run by the secretary of the bishops’ conference, Ángel Polibio Sánchez, while the members of the two orders in conflict have been kept from returning to the province.

“Bringing the Heralds in was preposterous – it’s a congregation from the south of the continent, without any experience at all in Ecuador, and even less in the jungle, and with an extreme-right position, which puts a priority on cult-like public acts,” Andrés León told IPS.

He and his wife Dolores, who attend a Carmelite church in Quito, explained that the order established the Assembly of the Church of San Miguel de Sucumbíos (ISAMIS), made up of delegates from basic ecclesial communities, pastoral workers, members of missionary orders, diocesan clergy and provincial social organisations.

ISAMIS, which operates as a sort of democratic parliament of the region’s Catholic community, runs a local radio station, day care centres, nursing homes and schools in the province.

The clashes between groups that worked with the Carmelites and organisations called the “Charismatic Renewal” that back the Heralds peaked on May 16, when the latter attempted to take over the Radio Sucumbíos station.

The Heralds decided to sack 16 employees of the radio station, which was still in the hands of ISAMIS, and showed up at the station with dismissal orders signed by Church and labour authorities.

The employees broadcast their dismissal live, prompting hundreds of listeners to flock to the station to defend them. Thanks to the crowd, the police were unable to remove the employees from the station.

“The national and international support was key, because the situation in the radio station immediately reached the attention of radio networks like the Corporación de Radios Populares del Ecuador (which groups community radio stations) and AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters),” journalist Blanca Diego, the press coordinator for the fast, told IPS.

However, charges of terrorism were brought against 20 people, in legal action filed by the Heralds. One of the things López Marañón is calling for in his fast is that the charges be dropped.

The withdrawal of the two orders failed to calm things down, and fresh confrontations broke out in Nueva Loja on May 22, between groups disputing control of the cathedral and other Church facilities. It was reportedly this episode that prompted López Marañón to begin his fast.

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