From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
North American Christians Try to Protect
04 May 1996 19:53:47
95412 North American Christians Try to Protect
Guatemalan Presbyterians from Death Squads
by Alexa Smith
CHIMALTENANGO, Guatemala--A volcano that looms over Chimaltenango's flat
rooftops symbolizes the tensions that smolder beneath the surface of this
seemingly quiet Guatemalan mountain town.
Six North American Christians -- four of them members of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) -- have been in and out of Chimaltenango since
summer, with at least one of them staying with the Rev. Lucio Martinez all
the time, day and night.
In August, Martinez and two other Guatemalan Presbyterian leaders in
Kaqchiquel Presbytery were threatened by what many call a military-backed
death squad, giving them just 24 hours to leave the country or be killed.
The North Americans who go in and out of Chimaltenango hope their presence
helps keep Martinez alive.
Presbyterians accompanying Martinez have been Marilie Robertson of
Canoga Park, Calif.; Tom Spath of Houston, Texas; Charles Coultas of
Havana, Fla.; and Donna Broudy of Albuquerque, N.M., and her husband, David
"I was deeply impressed by the work they were doing," says Mennonite
Gary Guthrie of Des Moines, Iowa, speaking of income-generating projects
for widows and of education work in Kaqchiquel Presbytery, a largely rural
presbytery filled with many isolated communities of Mayans, who still
observe traditional ways of living. Guthrie spent 10 days in September
with Martinez, his wife and five daughters.
"[If these death threats are effective,] who loses out?" he asked
during an interview with the Presbyterian News Service. Answering his own
question, Guthrie said, "The people. And God's kingdom."
In Guatemala, intimidation and harrassment are nothing new for
churches or for the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala
(NEPCG), according to Dennis Smith, a longtime PC(USA) mission worker in
Guatemala City. "Yes, pastors have been killed. Yes, church leaders have
been killed. Yes, rural congregations have been targeted for repression,"
he said. Presbyterians trying to put Reformed notions of transforming
society into practice have been and are targets, Smith added.
But until pressures escalated around the death of the Rev. Manuel
Saquic in Chimaltenango last summer, he said, the NEPCG had not felt
unified enough to protest those abuses, much less do so on an international
scale. The outcry surrounding the death of Saquic demonstrates the
influence of the NEPCG's increasingly organized Mayan presbyteries,
developed in rural communities well acquainted with threats, intimidation,
beatings, informers, and, twice in the past year in Chimaltenango, death.
Eight indigenous presbyteries now compose a bloc within the NEPCG,
which includes 15 presbyteries overall.
"These are things we face constantly," said one Kaqchiquel pastor,
drawing on the historical memory of a people persecuted since the Spanish
conquest more than 500 years ago. "[Some] say it is because we are Mayans.
... We will always be targeted, killed. For those who kill us, it is not a
novelty. They have always done it."
But others -- like David Son of the Conference of Evangelical Churches
of Guatemala -- say an analysis built purely on racism is too simplistic,
since some Mayans have prospered and moved up in society. The struggle is
against a social and economic system that keeps privileges for a few but
keeps the rest in poverty. And according to Son, anyone who challenges
that system -- no matter what their ethnicity -- gets threatened.
"They don't just go after indigenous," says Son. "They go after
ladinos' [Mayans who have abandoned traditional ways] also when ladinos'
confront the system."
North Americans in Chimaltenango are hoping to keep the threats at
bay. They hope their presence is seen as a witness that those who are
threatened are not alone in the world, that an international church stands
with them. They also hope the message gets across that the U.S. government
may apply pressure for investigations of crimes against Guatemalans that
Guatemalan authorities opt to overlook.
"If a U.S. citizen is hurt or killed in Guatemala, it's big news in
the States," says Mark Kline Taylor, an associate professor of theology at
Princeton Theological Seminary who has accompanied Guatemalans during
previous violent periods. "And Guatemalan leaders have some accounting to
"It increases the safety factor when a U.S. citizen is present," said
Taylor, noting that historically close financial ties between U.S. and
Guatemalan business sectors give U.S. interests some leverage in
Guatemala's political realm.
Such ties are particularly important now, according to Susan Soux of
the United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA), because international
financing is crucial to peace negotiations under way now in Guatemala. "If
they [other countries such as the U.S.] don't see results, they won't
support [the staus quo] indefinitely," she said. International communities
have some leverage, such as sanctions or the option to withdraw
developmental aid, Soux added.
But even with those external safeguards, Smith says, it is clear that
accompaniment is not without risk. So the reasons Christians accompany
other Christians are inherently theological. "It is saying publicly to the
people who do the killing: 'The persons being accompanied are not alone.
Though in your society, they are defined among the excluded, among the
global human family, they are consciously included.'
"It says: 'These lives here have value.'"
PC(USA) mission worker Lydia Hernandez says the message has even more
potent meaning for those accompanied by internationals. "When they say,
'God is present and God is present here through you,' they really believe
"That God's love is expressed through human lives. ... They feel God's
presence because you are here," said Hernandez, who is quick to add that,
as a Hispanic woman, she is hassled less in Guatemala when she travels with
a British mission worker from the seminary there.
Son, a Pentecostal, agrees that international pressure and pastoral
presence are crucial in Guatemala. "It is very important for us ... your
accompaniment in all this," he told a PC(USA) delegation in Guatemala City
in mid-October. "It strengthens us. It helps us feel a little more
assured that we are not alone in this struggle.
"Behind us are many friends, brothers and sisters."
Despite the risks, PC(USA) mission worker David Winter said presence
in the midst of suffering is what Christians must do. "When your brother
is suffering a life-threatening illness in the hospital, it is immensely
important for you to be there. It's deadly business in Guatemala ...
talking with poor people about improving their lives," he continued, "but
it's also gospel."
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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