democraciaAbierta: Feature

Memory and forgetting in Guatemala: Catholic Church sets the war record straight

The beatification of ten Catholics killed by the Guatemalan Army and local militias several decades ago is a powerful symbol of change in Guatemala

Sergio Palencia-Frener
6 June 2021, 12.00am
Candelaria de los Mártires Parish in Quiché, Guatemala, 2015.
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Sergio Palencia-Frener

On 23 April, the Catholic Church beatified three priests and seven co-religionists, the youngest of whom was 12, who were murdered by the Guatemalan Army and local militias in Quiché, north-west of the country’s capital, several decades ago.

The ceremony was a powerful symbol of change in Guatemala, where conflict raged between 1960 and 1996, leaving more than 200,000 people dead. During the civil war, the church was persecuted for its advocacy of the dignity and rights of the poor. In the beatification mass, broadcast on national television, several bishops declared the Quiché dead, who were killed between 1980 and 1991, as martyrs.

Most of the newly beatified were Indigenous Maya, while the priests were European. All died at the hands of the army or the civilian self-defense patrols, militias created by the government of Guatemala’s late dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt that were notorious for perpetuating human rights abuses. Montt was convicted in 2013 for trying to exterminate the Ixil, a Mayan community whose villages were wiped out by his forces.

With the beatification of two Ixil, it is worth exploring the historical context of the deaths of the ten newly beatified Catholics. The murders have a regional resonance; as a Central American phenomenon, the persecution of the church was common to the dictatorial regimes of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Some Catholic priests remained in their parishes despite receiving multiple threats. But their decision to share the danger faced by their parishioners sometimes ended in tragedy.

In 1977, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, was assassinated in Aguilares, El Salvador. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had previously been seen as a social conservative, was deeply affected by Grande’s death and became a critic of the government. Romero himself was shot dead in 1980 and canonized in 2018.

Elsewhere, in Rivas, Nicaragua, Spanish Catholic priest Gaspar García Laviana died fighting for the rights of the poor in 1978.

Four years later, in Guatemala, two priests – Fernando Hoyos and Serge Berten – were killed while fighting in the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, a leftist movement. It was around this time that the Guatemalan army killed the Catholics in Quiché; the Spanish priests José María Gran, Faustino Villanueva, Juan Alonso Fernández as well as their Indigenous co-religionists, Reyes Us, Rosalío Benito Ixchop, Miguel Tiu Imul and 12-year-old Juan Barrera.

The Indigenous-Catholic Cooperative

Josefa, daughter of Miguel Tiu, one of the newly beatified, has spoken about her father’s faith. She told Tujaal, an Indigenous radio station, that he converted to Catholicism aged ten and began to teach catechism.

Lay Catholics such as Miguel Tiu played a key role in the transformation of communities in Chiapas in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador between 1940 and 1980. In Guatemala, many of the laymen were instructed by Catholic Action, an ecclesial movement initially focused on combating Maya syncretic practices, which were considered unsuitable.

In 1978, Father Hermógenes López was shot dead. He had denounced the military’s seizing of water and the conscription of children

Both before and after the 1954 coup d'état in Guatemala, orchestrated by the United States against President Jacobo Árbenz who had instituted land reforms, the Catholic church promoted anti-Communism. In her essay ‘The Maya Catholic Cooperative Spirit’, California State University professor Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens traces how the cooperatives set up by Indigenous people became an agrarian movement. In a country where rural organization was considered subversive, the cooperatives became a channel for activism of sorts. Farmers with big holdings, mill owners, and labor contractors denounced these Catholic cooperatives as communist networks. By the late 1960s, the United States and Guatemala’s elite were fighting communist groups, which were supported by the Indigenous people. The situation was explosive.

The military began to indiscriminately persecute Catholic priests and laymen; whether working in a beekeeping project in Nebaj in the western highlands, in the forests of Ixcán or in a potato cooperative in the historic town of Comalapa. This was to prevent the economic and moral emancipation of Guatemala’s Mayan people.

In 1976, the army killed William Woods, a priest of the American Catholic order Maryknoll. Woods was helping the Maya take control of their northern forest home. In 1978, Father Hermógenes López was shot dead. He had denounced the military’s seizing of water and the conscription of children. This was part of the larger wave of repression to which members of the cooperatives, Indigenous mayors and trade unionists were subjected, and was the situation immediately before the murder of the ten Catholics in Quiché.

The murder of priests were the first signs of the coming storm. Between 1980 and 1982, the Guatemalan army razed the villages considered red bastions. Many of them had at least three decades of organizing with Catholic Action and cooperatives. Josefa, Miguel Tiu’s daughter, remembers his role in protecting his mountain village.

“At the time of violence, we went to the mountains to live,” she said, “because soldiers and helicopters always drop bombs. They went after us. My dad fell and hit [his shoulder]. They burned all the land including the cornfields. The [military] commissioners also robbed our corn. We no longer had anything to eat. At that moment [my father] went to ask for help for the children. Many children have been left without a father, without a mother. There were also many widows.”

Persecution of the Church

In 2013, Rosolino Bianchetti, bishop of Quiché diocese, sent testimonies to Rome from people who knew the ten Quiché Catholics. Bianchetti explained that it was part of an attempt to show that “in Guatemala there was persecution of the Church”.

It was not the first time that the Catholic Church has worked on creating a historical record of state violence and denouncing it. In 1988, Bishop Juan Gerardi founded the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. The Human Rights Office would later coordinate Guatemala’s first truth commission, which compiled thousands of accounts of massacres, kidnappings and the institutional responsibility for actions during the decades of civil war.

Later, books would be written to understand the significance of the Catholic resistance. Santiago Otero, a member of the Marist Brothers, an international community, wrote ‘They gave their lives: Book of the Martyrs of the Diocese of Quiché’ in 2003. It bears the following assertion by Bishop Julio Cabrera: “Quiché is for many reasons a sacred place […] Often my heart could not resist the intensity of the stories that spoke of so much pain. Prayer was the only thing that allowed me to resist.”

Señoras y niñas con las velas en el año 2016 en la aldea Cuarto Pueblo, en el departamento del Quiché, Guatemala.
Ladies and girls with candles in 2016 in the Cuarto Pueblo village, in the department of Quiché, Guatemala | Sergio Palencia-Frener

The Quiché bishop began the process of beatification in 2013, the year that Pope Francis beatified 522 Catholics who were murdered in Tarragona during the Spanish civil war. It was increasingly clear that there was a resonance between the persecution of the religious community in both Spain and Guatemala. However, the portrayal of the clergy was very different in both countries. In Spain, the clergy was seen as pro-monarchy, while in Guatemala, the army saw some priests, including the missionaries of the Sacred Heart, as left-wing guerrillas.

The process of honouring the Quiché Catholics’ lives and actions continued in Rome with the pope declaring them blessed. The Vatican had already beatified Guatemalan priest Hermógenez López, Italian priest Tullio Maruzzo, Guatemalan Catholic Obdulio Arroyo and Americans Stanley Rother and James Miller, all of whom were killed during the Guatemalan civil war.

The beatification of the Quiche Catholics underlines what really happened in the killing fields of Guatemala, and Latin America, during the long years of war.

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