Friday, May 8, 2009

Guatemala: Heroes and Martyrs

Guatemala is back in the news right now, and not just as the country of origin of Padre Alberto's novia, beautician Ruhama Buni Canellis.

1. In Dublin, Dr Yuri Melini of Guatemala was awarded the Front Line Protection of Human Rights Defenders Award because of his work to uphold the rights of indigenous people of Guatemala against the ruthless interests of the logging and mining companies who put the profits of their companies before the interests of the community. On 4 September, Yuri Melini was shot 7 times as he was leaving his home and as a result spent 22 days in intensive care. He was shot because his human rights work challenged the interests of powerful people.

Yuri Melini in the last two years has documented 128 attacks on environmental activists and has the led the campaign to bring the assassins of environmental campaigners lawyer Erwin Ochoa López and Julio Armando Vásquez (CONAP - Guatemalan National Council of Protected Areas - workers) to justice. They were murdered because of the work they were carrying out in relation to the legal defense of protected areas on Guatemala's Atlantic Coast.

The award was presented by actor and activist Martin Sheen. In his acceptance speech, Dr. Melini said “I accept this award on behalf of the people of Guatemala because the environment belongs to everyone, not just to one small group. In Guatemala there should be room for everyone irrespective of their point of view. This is why I dedicate myself to continue the struggle for human rights in Guatemala.”

2. The Washington Post reports that "since President Álvaro Colom took office in January 2008, Guatemala has stepped up payments to survivors of the estimated 200,000 people who died in the 36-year civil war. Begun in 2003, the program had compensated 3,000 survivors by 2007, according to its directors. But under Colom, whose family suffered a high-profile death during the war, the state has handed out 10,477 checks -- many for claims ignored for years, according to Cesar Davila, president of the National Compensation Program.

"Survivors also get a letter from Colom asking for forgiveness for the losses they suffered as a result of the abuses committed by the state during the war, which ended in 1996. "The fact that the president signs it is very important," said Orlando Blanco, Guatemala's secretary of peace. "It is an official document that says, 'Here is the truth: My son was not a subversive or a delinquent. It was the state that killed him.' "

Said Lucia Quila (photo), who lost her husband, elderly father and a sister in the war: "It meant a lot to hear that yes, the state accepted responsibility."

"Many of the compensated survivors are Mayan. A truth commission report said Mayans were victims of genocide by the army, which feared that their poverty and marginalization would make them potential allies of the rebels. Seventy percent of the recipients are women who lost husbands, parents and children, Blanco said. Some were raped, a violation that recently became grounds for reparation, he said.

"Officials say 64,000 requests are pending. The Colom government is trying to help the survivors most in need of the payments, which range from $1,500 to $2,500. The program has built more than 800 houses for war victims and plans thousands more."

3. Tragically, even as change is coming to the country, Guatemalan human rights activists are still being targeted with death threats. Amnesty International reports that nine activists working for two prominent human rights organizations in Guatemala have received dozens of death threats by SMS text messages.

"Between 30 April and 5 May, nine members of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security under Democracy and the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit received over 40 SMS text messages containing abuse and death threats. The texts focused on their work to bring to justice those responsible for the crimes committed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. One of the messages, sent on 2 May read: “You’ve got one hour, this is the last warning. Stop messing with us, military declassified files. We’ll kill your kids first, then you.”

4. While we hope there will be no more martyrs, the latest issue of the Houston Catholic Worker reports on the efforts to canonize Father Stanley Rother, who was shot to death on the night of July 28, 1981 in the rectory of his church in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala. Rother was a priest in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City which was responsible for the mission there. Among his accomplishments, Fr. Rother learned the local indigenous Tzutuhil language and even translated the New Testament into that tongue to be able to communicate with his people. He chose to return to be with his community even though one of his catechists and more than 20 of his parishioners had already been murdered by the military and knowing that his own name was on a death list. You can read more about Fr. Rother's life on his canonization site.

Father Rother's best known legacy is the famous colorful Santiago Atitlan clerical stoles that are still being made by the weavers of that community in his memory. You can read the story and purchase the stoles through MayaWorks.

Heavenly Father,
source of all holiness,
in every generation you raise up
men and women heroic in love and service.

You have blessed your Church
with the life of Stanley Rother,
priest, missionary, and martyr.
Through his prayer, his preaching,
his presence, and his pastoral love,
you revealed Your love and Your presence
with us as Shepherd.

If it be your will,
may he be proclaimed
by the universal church
as martyr and saint,
living now in your presence
and interceding for us all.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen

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