Part Two: Latin America’s biggest Catholic stories of 2020

Part Two: Latin America’s biggest Catholic stories of 2020

Fire from a molotov cocktail explodes in front of police as a police vehicle shoots water at protesters who marched against the commemoration of the discovery of the Americas, organized by Indigenous groups demanding autonomy and the recovery of ancestral land in Santiago, Chile, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. (Credit: Esteban Felix/AP.)

Although 2020 seemed to be a year in which time stood still, Latin America continued to be a region in turmoil.

[Editor’s note: This is part two of two-part series. Part one can be found here.]

ROSARIO, Argentina — Although 2020 seemed to be a year in which time stood still, Latin America continued to be a region in turmoil.

From Mexico to Cape Horn,  a case could be made of Latin America being a region in constant crisis: political, economic, or social – when not all three combined.

The impact of COVID-19 in Latin America has been igniting protests in several countries, with the economic fallout from the pandemic aggravated existing social tensions in Panama, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

In Nicaragua and Venezuela, where the governments took little to no precautions against the virus, people are actually banned from protesting. In Nicaragua, it’s literally illegal to carry the nation’s flag, as the government of Daniel Ortega sees it as a symbol of the uprising that began in 2018. In both nations, the Catholic bishops have played a key role in trying to negotiate between the government and the opposition, with the Vatican’s support.

This year, Venezuela had parliamentary elections, and the bishops described them as a “regrettable” and argued that they would further aggravate the country’s crisis, where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

In Nicaragua, it was the bishops who asked people not to attend Mass or any other large gatherings in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and the government launching propaganda flyers saying that God would spare the nation from a virus that has left no country unscarred.

In Chile, people once again took to the streets to protest the country’s extreme inequalities, following up on a series of protests that took place in 2019. The original protests began over a minor rise in the metro fare in Santiago, the country’s capital, but led to a referendum this year calling for the country’s constitution to be rewritten.

The bishops urged people to vote in the referendum but didn’t take an official position on the issue.

The constitution dates back to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973-1981. Many priests and bishops opposed Pinochet and had a key role in defending human rights, but others supported the dictator as the only alternative to communism.

Peru was also in political turmoil this year, with three presidents in a week in November, after Congress created a presidential vacancy by firing popular Margin Vizcarra over corruption charges. In this case, the bishops opposed the move, saying the midst of a pandemic was not the right time to change leadership.

Archbishop Carlos Castillo of Lima, Peru’s capital, said at a time when the country counted over 30,000 COVID-19 deaths, “there is a situation that demands priority from us to face the crisis of the pandemic, joining efforts, the Government, Parliament, the Peruvian people, entities of all kinds, so that we can overcome it successfully.”

This is not to say Castillo was willing to give the president a free pass: Vizcarra, according to the archbishop, should “give an account of what he has done.”

In Colombia, at least 80 mass killings have happened in 2020, most of them in regions controlled by criminal gangs or leftist rebels, who are often involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. These groups haven’t fully embraced the peace accords signed between the government and the FARC guerrilla in 2016.

The Catholic bishops released several statements condemning the violence, including one in August,  in which they reminded the people that “every life is sacred” and rejected all violence, regardless of its origin.

But not every violent act in Colombia was perpetrated by organized crime and former guerrilla members: In September, at least 13 people were victims of police brutality, killed during protests against abuse by the state authorities.

Protests broke out after a video went viral showing two police officers in Bogota suffocating a man with their knees, while witnesses asked the officers to stop. The bishops responded by calling for peace and with a prayer vigil for reconciliation.

Rise of anti-Christian persecution

On Oct. 18, tens of thousands took to the streets of Santiago, Chile’s capital, to mark the one-year anniversary of a social revolt that left some 30 people dead, 25 metro rail stations destroyed, and thousands of shops damaged.

Two churches were vandalized in the protests, with pews and wooden statues looted to burn in nearby barricades but the buildings left standing.

This time several hundred protesters broke off from the main body – which had been demonstrating peacefully – to fulfill an ominous threat made online the previous year: “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

Observers gave several possible reasons as to why the churches were targeted: Some cite popular anger over Chile’s massive clerical sexual abuse scandals, others say it’s a broader rage against all national institutions. Some contend the churches are mostly targets of opportunity, and still others suggest it’s actually the police and security forces fomenting the violence.

Nicaragua too, saw several churches attacked, including the cathedral of Managua, the country’s capital, that was bombed in August.

While government officials have described the incidents as isolated, Catholic leaders insist the attacks were “premeditated” and part of a campaign of “terrorism” directed by pro-Ortega forces.

In 2018, charitable foundation Open Doors International warned that the expansion of the secular humanist movement and its sexual agenda was expanding to historically conservative nations.

In Argentina, the heated debate over the liberalization of the country’s abortion laws has led to instances of anti-Catholic bias. Protestors have called for a separation of Church and State, which has long been a reality in the country.

In the words of Bishops Sergio Buenanueva of San Francisco: “Argentina is not a confessional state (thanks be to God!). There’s no Church-State union. There’s autonomy and cooperation.”

“A free Church in a free State with free citizens,” he said. “Another thing is to make Christians humanism disappear from life and public debate. This, no.”

On Dec. 12 by a group of vandals to the Church of Our Lady of Valvanera, in the city of Pitalito, in the southeastern part of Colombia.

They broke open the tabernacle, and stole the ciborium and monstrance, along with several other religious objects. The thieves also threw the consecrated hosts on the floor.

Bishop Fabio Duque Jaramillo, of Garzón, released a statement decrying the desecration of the Eucharist: “In the name of the Catholic Church, I raise my voice in protest and condemnation for the desecration of the church and the tabernacle.”

The attack, he said, was “an act which wounds all Catholics of the Diocese of Garzón and the universal Church, because we see the central mystery of our faith under attack: the Eucharist, the presence of God in our midst and the extension of the mystery of human redemption.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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