Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 1, 2009
Death stalks clerics in Amazon jungle
Police officers, electric wire protect some activist clerics in Brazil
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — When Bishop Erwin Krautler of Xingu celebrates Mass each Sunday, he has two altar servers and two police officers at his side.
His house in Brazil’s Amazon region is monitored by cameras and surrounded by an electrical wire fence, and he is no longer able to take morning walks around his neighbourhood.
“He is under protection 24/7,” because he has received death threats for speaking out against injustices, said an official at the Brazilian Catholic bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council.
“I feel my liberty has, in some sense, been taken away from me,” Krautler told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview. However he admitted that the presence of the police officers has made his would-be assassins more cautious.
Krautler has been under police protection for the past two years after threats against him increased.
The bishop has spoken against the construction of a hydroelectric plant along the Xingu River in Belo Monte. He has also strongly opposed advances made by farmers and loggers in the Amazon forest.
He was one of the main figures trying to bring to justice those who killed Sister Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in 2005.
In April, the man accused of ordering Sister Dorothy’s assassination, Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, was set free and allowed to wait for his retrial at home. Critics say a free de Moura is likely to continue to exert his influence.
Dominican Brother Henri des Roziers has been in the Amazon region for 30 years and considers himself a native, although he is originally from France.
His work as a lawyer for the bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission has resulted in death threats. He speculates that among those threatening his life could be people who abuse human rights, including some police officers as well as farmers and loggers who use slave labourers.
Des Roziers said he continues to do his work in the community, but he “is not left alone for a single minute.”
Although the police protection has led to a reduction in the threats, he said he sometimes worries about the other activists who are not under government protection.
“The federal government has determined that some of us are to be protected,” he said, “but we are a very small group compared to all of those being threatened currently in the region.” Most who defend the Amazon and its people are left to fend for themselves.
The death threats made to these religious workers are subtle, so that no one person is readily identified.
The bishop and priest said most threats are overheard by their friends and colleagues as they sit for a cup of coffee at the local hangout or at a social gathering. Someone says that the bishop or brother or nun “must go,” “must disappear” or even “must be silenced forever.” The message is then transmitted to the potential victims.
FIRST DEATH THREAT
Krautler said he can remember the first time he received a death threat.
“It was the exact day I completed 25 years as a bishop,” he recalled. Later that year, a local paper even announced the day he would be assassinated. There were rumours that his murder had already been ordered for a payment of $500,000.
“These people have formed a ‘consortium’ to murder those who speak out against what they are doing,” Krautler told CNS. “I believe that it was a consortium of landowners who got together to hire someone to murder Sister Dorothy.”
Sister Dorothy, a native of Dayton, Ohio, and a naturalized Brazilian, was 73 when she was murdered on an isolated road near the town of Anapu. She had lived in Brazil for nearly four decades and was known as a fierce defender of a sustainable development project for the Amazon forest.
CIMI, as the Indigenous Missionary Council is known, says the widespread impunity in the Amazon has led wealthy landowners, loggers and miners to believe they can continue to act freely, no matter what they do.
The government was surprised by the international repercussions of Sister Dorothy’s assassination and, says des Roziers, does not want to worsen its image abroad.