El Salvador's Roman Catholic leaders targeted by death squads

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Clandestine death squads have mounted a major campaign of intimidation against the Roman Catholic Church here. The Salvador church's two top leaders, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas and Auxiliary Archbishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, have received public death threats. And communiques attached to bodies of recent death squad victims have denounced Catholic church and lay workers who call for dialogue between the government and insurgent forces.

Previously, most death squad threats have been privately transmitted to their targets.

The prelates, according to the Maximilio Hernandez Martinez Anticommunist Brigade, are spreading ''disinformation against our country.'' A radio broadcast by the brigade accuses the church officials of having ties to the guerrillas and has demanded that their Sunday homilies, which often condemn the violence here, be suspended or ''drastic sanctions'' would be taken.

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When Archbishop Rivera y Damas was in hiding in 1977 because of similar threats, death squads issued a series of pamphlets that read: ''Be a patriot! Kill a priest.''

Commenting on the threats, Rosa Chavez says, ''We are used to repression and we have learned the high price one pays for speaking out against injustice.''

Rosa Chavez is one of the more conservative clerics in the church hierarchy. He condemned the threats in a recent homily with a strong defense of the church in nearby Nicaragua and an appeal to democratic elements within the Salvadorean government to intervene in the intimidation efforts.

The Anticommunist Brigade has demanded that local and international news agencies publish their threats against the two bishops or the agencies would suffer ''severe sanctions.'' It also warned news media to cease publication of the bishops' sermons.

The ultra right is also trying to discredit church nuns and lay workers who run a girl's parochial school, calling them ''Marxist-Leninist.'' A rightist radio report said evidence supporting the charge is found in a songbook issued to the pupils, which includes folk hymns commemorating former Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was assassinated while conducting mass in 1980.

The threats against Rivera y Damas and Rosa Chavez were preceded by several anonymous threats, say sources in the archbishop's office.

Since 1977 nine priests have been assassinated, and 25 have fled the country. There are now 300 priests in El Salvador. Former United States Ambassador Robert White testified before the US Senate in 1980 that documents seized from Roberto D'Aubuisson, the president of the Constituent Assembly, implicated him and members of the Salvadorean High Command in the assassination of Archbishop Romero.

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