Salvador Catholic Church divided over role it should play in war

El Salvador's Roman Catholic Church is in a dilemma. Some within the church want it to take a more activerole in peace talks to end the six-year civil war between the United States-backed government and left-wing guerrillas.

But the church as a whole is finding it difficult to take such a role. Most of the church hierarchy is ultraconservative, while many priests, nuns, and laity have some sympathy for the rebels.

Many Salvadoreans had hoped that the church's success earlier this year in mediating with left-wing rebels to liberate President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's kidnapped daughter meant that the church might play a role in resolving the war.

El Salvador is highly polarized between the leftist insurgency and the ultraconservative concepts shared by the private sector and portions of the Army.

The church reflects those divisions. It appears as unable to solve its internal divisions as it is unable to end the war.

``The church is rudderless,'' notes an academic. ``It doesn't know where it is going.''

Although the church hierarchy is extremely conservative, much of the church's base -- priests, nuns, laity -- has been strongly affected by liberation theology. A handful of priests even say mass behind rebel lines.

Liberation theology is a Roman Catholic movement, chiefly in Latin America, that advocates the need for Catholics to become involved in movements for social justice and the desirability, in some cases, of revolution. Within the church, they call for a decentralized and more democratic ``church of the poor.''

The archbishop of San Salvador, Arturo Rivera y Damas, has been deeply affected by liberation theology. But he is caught between elements of the left and right within the church. Archbishop Rivera is under pressure from the local church as well as from the Vatican. They argue that, for him to retain his credibility in the church, he must maintain a unified position with the conservative bishops. As a result, Rivera has taken a cautious approach that church activists find frustrating. They wa nt him to use the church's enhanced prestige, gained from mediations with the rebels, to push for new peace talks. This is difficult in the face of opposition from the military, the private sector, the US, and the ambivalence of the Salvadorean government toward peace dialogue.

But the only sign that the church is taking a more active role in El Salvador is its attempt to mediate an agreement between striking telephone employees and the government.

Archbishop Rivera lives under the shadow of his predecessor, the late Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

In 1977, the Vatican, heavily lobbied by El Salvador's ultraconservative oligarchy, chose Romero for the arch-bishopric. Rivera, with ties to Mr. Duarte's Christian Democratic Party, was seen as too liberal a candidate.

Romero became more radicalized. He supported civilian organizations that were pushing for radical reforms -- better living standards and an end to Army repression. He was assassinated in March 1980. The Vatican chose the more conservative Rivera to replace Romero.

Rome is troubled by the Salvadorean church's turn toward activism. It has kept Rivera on a tight rein. Thus, Rivera has charted a more cautious course than Romero.

Rivera has developed close personal ties with Duarte and other top government officials. But he has consistently opposed US military aid. After four US Marines were killed by rebels in San Salvador in June, Rivera said that the government's attacks on rebels were hypocritical so long as the Army continued what he called ``terrorism of the state'' -- bombings, burning of houses, and forced relocation of civilians from rebel-held zones to government zones. Rivera's statements drew vitriolic attacks from r ight-wing newspapers.

The church is caught in a ``tension between political impartiality on one hand [referring to its role as a mediator] and partiality for the poor and suffering,'' says one of Latin America's leading theologians and a scholar at the Jesuit Central American University in San Salvador.

The rebels also criticize the church. The rebels were displeased with the church's pastoral letter issued in August. It urged dialogue as the only solution to the war, but also denounced the rebels.

``The most important thing is not to maintain credibility with both sides [in conflict],'' says Ignacio Ellacuria, director of the Jesuit University. ``The most important thing is to have credibility with 4 million Salvadoreans -- to really be a voice for those people.''

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