From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Human Rights Work More Important Than Threats,
04 May 1996 20:55:52
95458 Human Rights Work More Important Than Threats,
Guatemalan Christians Say
by Alexa Smith
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala--The nurse's station where Ester Martinez works
keeps getting telephone calls wanting to know what time her shift ends.
The male caller claims to be her husband. But Ester Martinez doesn't have a
She lives with her parents, Lucio and Josefina Martinez, and her four
sisters in rural Chimaltenango. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, has
spent the past four months living with death threats. Martinez has been
threatened with death because of his strong support for human rights and
his refusal to keep quiet about last June's brutal murder of his friend,
the Rev. Manuel Saquic, another human rights worker.
"I have talked to them about the situation, to prepare them in case
anything happens to me or to Josefina. ... They should have life," said
Martinez. His daughters are losing sleep, getting headaches and becoming
accustomed to living with their nerves on edge, he added. "They know very
well we aren't doing anything harmful. The work we do in the communities
is very important.
"But it wasn't easy to talk about these things. We all cried,
embraced each other," he said, his eyes filling up with tears.
Those conversations never get easier. They are frightfully common in
Guatemala's Christian community -- where the stress in families targeted
for harassment is almost unrelenting. Because in Guatemala, those who work
to improve the lives of the poor get killed.
A Presbyterian minister on Guatemala's south coast told the
Presbyterian News Service that he is able to visit his wife and children
only once about every two weeks since his life was threatened. The
absences -- and the stress -- are hard on them all, especially the
"They've seen ... they know neighbors have been killed. They've seen
bodies after they've been discovered," he said. Often those bodies are
horribly mutilated. He says he cautions his wife to keep their four
children close to the house, instead of letting them run and play. Fear
that one of the children might be kidnapped is the worst, he says.
Presbyterian elder Rodrigo Batz is unable to live at home either. He
also worries that his children will have psychological problems because of
prolonged tension and violence. The children have stopped playing with
firecrackers, he says, because they sound too much like gunshots -- and
gunshots mean someone else has been killed.
Batz has publicly denounced threats against human rights workers'
lives and knows at least 10 assassinations have been carried out in his own
neighborhood. None of them has been investigated by the authorities. "It
would be easier to be doing nothing," he said. "But there is lots to be
done. So, from here we continue."
The stress either draws families closer than ever or pulls them apart.
"There are moments when we are more concerned than others ... and then
I just spend more time with my family," said David Son of the Conference of
Evangelical Churches of Guatemala (CIEDEC) in Guatemala City. Those
moments come when CIEDEC denounces another human rights abuse. "In my
case, my family is convinced this work has risk, but it is worth doing."
Maria Francisca Ventura de Saquic was not always so sure. She says
there were many nights she wished her husband was not the one doing such
worthwhile human rights work. And, since his murder, she and her six
children have been living in hiding, away from home and away from the
children's schools and friends.
She is not sure how she will support her brood or pay for education
for her oldest two girls, ages 17 and 15. She sews bed covers and dresses
to try to make ends meet. "Constant prayer has always been what sustained
me," she says to explain how she keeps going. "I must keep in mind the
welfare of my children."
Guatemala's pastors have to keep in mind the welfare of a church with
way too many orphans and widows in a world prone to ever escalating
violence. Some congregations use prayer rituals as a response to threats of
In his Pentecostal tradition, Son says, a pastor will gather for
prayer a family facing a death threat, often accompanied by other elders in
the church. "At times," he says, "in church itself ... we'll call a person
to the altar and the elders will pray for protection." The solemnity of
those moments stands in stark contrast to the clapping, singing and joyous
prayers typical of Pentecostal worship.
In Reformed circles, the constant pressure of threats and intimidation
has brought about an understanding that life itself is nothing less than
miraculous, says Presbyterian Elder Andreas Lopez. He has been kidnapped
twice but is still alive. "We thank God for our lives ... and we pray God
gives us the strength to continue," he said. "We're like the salt you
place on food. We're a few. But we're the voices God speaks to the
"There are people who want to hate," Lopez continued. "I hear orphans
say, 'I wish I were older. Then I would do something.' Or, 'If I have the
chance, I'll kill a soldier.' But that's not the way to correct the world.
Violence only generates more violence. It's better to pardon, when there
is a confession of sin," he Lopez said. " ... We don't want vengeance; we
do want justice."
Batz says if church members start nursing hatred -- which would be
easy to do -- the risks would be greater than the risks taken now for
justice. "We would end up just like them," he said, meaning those who do
violence and those who help it along for a little bit of money. "What is
happening is being done by people just the same as we are. Just people ...
"Because they are ignorant or want a little bit of money. But they
are the ones paying the bigger price," Batz said, referring to people
working as lookouts or informers. "They are not the real ones responsible,
not the ones who plan the acts. Behind them are the real guilty ones.
"So we are always waiting for justice."
In the meantime, Josefina Martinez says some of her neighbors -- who
know nothing about the death threats -- wonder why national police officers
stay close to Lucio. As active as her husband in church and community
work, Josefina says the threats have, strangely enough, made the couple
"love each other more."
Her husband responds: "We are together in the work. Because of the
difficulties, we've had to be together ... When we're together, we take
care of each other.
"The fact is, we have our work to do."
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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