KEY WEST, Florida – At the close of their annual general assembly, the Central American bishops rose to Pope Francis’s defense amid what they said have been false and hostile attacks following the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon in October.

They also advocated for better care of migrants and refugees, criticizing new immigration laws adopted by the Mexican government influenced by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has demanded harsh anti-immigration policies.

In their statement, signed Nov. 28, the bishops thanked Francis for the Amazon synod, calling it “an ecclesial event that has placed the world’s eyes on this vast area, which needs a massive evangelistic effort and colossal strength to be able to implement the many needs of an integral ecology.”

Pointing to numerous indigenous communities that live in the Amazon, the bishops insisted that they “have the right to receive the announcement of Jesus Christ and his kingdom by taking new paths.”

Because of the attention dedicated to these communities and the “new paths” for their evangelization, “it is not surprising that the Holy Father has been an object of virulent and insulting attacks, plagued by lies and calumny,” the bishops said.

Made at the end of the Nov. 25-29 assembly of the Episcopal Secretariat of Central America and Panama (SEDAC) in Heredia, Costa Rica, the notable public show of solidarity with the pope comes in the aftermath of harsh criticism he received in the wake of the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.

During the gathering, Francis was accused by many conservative Catholics of fostering idol worship, specifically of the “Pachamama.”

A female fertility figure representing Mother Earth, the Pachamama is venerated by indigenous communities in the Andes and portions of the Amazon. During the synod, the term was used in reference to small figurines of a naked pregnant woman that appeared during an Oct. 4 indigenous prayer service in the Vatican gardens attended by Francis, and which were later put on display in Rome’s Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina near the Vatican.

From the beginning traditionalist and conservative Catholics argued that the symbols amounted to pagan idolatry, while Francis enthusiasts insisted the statues amounted to an enculturated faith, using local symbols to reflect gospel realities.

On Oct. 21, the figurines were stolen from the Church of Traspontina and tossed into the Tiber River. The figurines were later retrieved by Italian police and the pope issued a public apology for their theft, however, the polemics the situation created are far from over.

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In their statement, published Nov. 28, the bishops sent the pope a “warm expression of our solidarity and the promise of our prayer, that the Holy Spirit illuminate and sustain you in your ministry.”

They also flagged several urgent concerns for Catholicism in Central America, such as the protection of minors and the various conflicts plaguing the Latin American continent.

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“We have found with concern that our continent is burning. Various countries in Latin America are passing through painful situations bursting with violence and different forms of intolerance,” they said, and made special mention of the deteriorating situation in Nicaragua, saying they are “exceedingly” worried about ongoing violence in the nation.

They also raised the issue of forced migration as a major challenge to be addressed, noting that there are currently hundreds of migrants stranded at the Mexico-Guatemala border who are unable to enter Mexico due to a set of strict new immigration laws.

“We lament the attitude of the Mexican government, which has changed its policy of open doors into an anti-migrant, anti-refugee policy like the current North American government,” the bishops said, criticizing what they said is “disrespect for the principle of non-refoulment in the case of asylum applicants who have fled their home countries.”

Largely due to pressure from the U.S. government over the immigration issue, Mexico has adjusted its policy on the matter, shifting from an approach promising to help migrants to one threatening militarized action against violators.

When Trump in May threatened crippling tariffs on all Mexican imports, the country’s government stepped up efforts to dissuade migrants, often fleeing violence and poverty, from crossing its border.  A new National Guard was deployed to oversee highway checkpoints on common migrant routes, and bus companies were told not to sell tickets to passengers without documents.

So far, more than 40,000 migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. have been sent back to Mexico to wait as the process moves forward. In the meantime, the Associated Press reports that state offices in Mexico’s immigration agency have been given quotas for the number of migrant detentions they are required to make.

The change in Mexico’s policies has aroused fear in some that the stricter laws will lead to an increased number of migrants who are stuck in dangerous border cities, meaning they might fall prey more easily to criminal outfits and opt to pay smugglers to get across the border illegally.

Faced with this situation, “we must emphatically reaffirm that migrants and refugees are our brothers who deserve help, because they have the right to respect, care protection and safety,” the bishops said, adding that they will continue to defend, protect and provide for the basic needs of migrants.

They urged all Catholic faithful “to overcome the temptation of indifference, of discrimination and xenophobia. Every migrant is our brother.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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