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SÃO PAULO – A week after the Brazilian police confirmed the killings of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian human rights activist Bruno Pereira in the Amazon, the region’s bishops visited Pope Francis and discussed the violence in the region.

Pereira, who worked for several years at the National Indigenous Foundation, a government agency, and Phillips, who reported for The Guardian in Brazil and was writing a book about the Amazon, went missing on June 5, in River Javari Valley, an Indigenous territory continuously harmed by illegal poachers, loggers, and miners.

On June 15, a man who was seen chasing the two men’s boat shortly before their disappearance told the police that they were killed and that he had helped to dismember their bodies and hide their remains.

Their bodies were later recovered. Since then, three other men were arrested in connection to the killings, and four others are being investigated for allegedly having taken part in the concealment of their remains.

Several civic organizations accused the government of being slow in investigating the disappearance of Pereira and Phillips, and expressed their shock when, only two days after the bodies were found, the Federal Police released a statement saying that no criminal organizations were behind the murders and and no “criminal mastermind” to be found.

Both the Brazlian bishops’ conference and the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM) released statements demanding a quick and thorough investigation of the crimes.

On June 20, bishops of four Amazonian States – Rondônia, Amazonas, Acre, and Roraima – began their ad limina visit to the Vatican. The increasing violence against the Amazonian traditional peoples and conservationists was discussed during their meetings with officials.

“The pope is aware of all the violent reality in the Amazon, especially the aggressions against the Indigenous groups. We talked about it with him,” Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho told Crux.

Paloschi, who heads the bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), said Pope Francis told the bishops to “not be afraid of standing with the poor and the marginalized, with the victims of that system that kills and generates so much evil.”

“He is very worried about the current situation in the region,” he added.

Archbishop Leonardo Steiner of Manaus, who was recently named as a cardinal, confirmed that the Brazilian group has been discussing with Vatican leaders the “violence against Indigenous and riverside peoples in the Amazon.”

“We have mentioned the killings of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips and demonstrated the relations between them and the ongoing context of violence in the Amazon,” he told Crux.

The subject has been specifically addressed during the bishops’ meeting with the members of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development on June 23, according to Bishop Edson Damian of São Gabriel da Cachoeira.

“They already had information on those topics but asked us for more details. We described the terrible situation in the Amazon, worsened by the current genocidal and ecocidal administration,” he told Crux, in a reference to President Jair Bolsonaro’s failure to secure the Amazon’s protection and to avoid the killing of community activists and environmentalists.

A recent survey released by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a non-governmental organization formed by scientists that works for the sustainable development of the region, showed that the devastation of the rainforest was 56.6 percent higher between August of 2018 and July of 2021 than in the three previous years. That period roughly corresponds to Bolsonaro’s tenure as Brazil’s president.

During his meeting with the pope, Bishop José Ionilton de Oliveira of Itacoatiara, who heads the Bishops’ Conference’s Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), gave him a copy of the report on land disputes in 2021 in Brazil.

CPT’s study showed that 35 people were murdered as a direct result of land conflicts in the country last year, while 109 others died from the consequences of such disputes (including diseases spread by those involved in illegal activities). Of the 144 victims, 111 were members of Indigenous peoples.

From January to May of 2022, at least 19 people were killed due to land disputes, most of them in the Amazon, although this does not include the murder of Phillips and Pereira.

During his audience with Pope Francis, Damian offered him an Indigenous headdress, made by artisan Gilda Barreto, a member of the Baré people. Pope Francis asked if it was a miter and wore it – something Damian said showed his closeness to the plight of the Amazonian peoples.

“I offered it to him on behalf of the Indigenous groups from the Amazon and he put it on his head,” Damian said.