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In Mexico, pope's warning underscores dangers confronted by priests

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Mexico is the most dangerous place in Latin America to be a Catholic priest. 

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    On his one-day trip to the capital of the Michoacan state, Francis also celebrated Mass and visited the Morelia cathedral.
    Rebecca Blackwell/AP
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In warning parishioners in the troubled state of Michoacán to steer clear of organized crime, Pope Francis on Tuesday offered a blunt if simple bit of counsel: “Jesus would never ask us to be hit men,” he said.

It’s a potent message in a country where more than 100,000 people have been killed in the drug war since 2006, and where some 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. But it also highlighted a lesser known challenge for the country: its status as the most dangerous place in Latin America to be a Catholic priest.  

Over the past 3-1/2 years, 11 priests have been brutally murdered, and another two have gone missing. They join a long list of 53 fallen church leaders since 1992, when the Mexico City-based Catholic Multimedia Center (CCM) first started keeping count. The majority of the slain priests died over the past decade, when the drug war came into full swing.

The ongoing threats are tied to priests' positions of leadership in local communities, as well as a lack of support and protection – not only from all levels of government but the church hierarchy as well, analysts say.

“Organized crime has permeated different institutions across the country: the police, the government at all levels,” says Father Omar Sotelo, director of CCM. “These criminals control the situation. When a priest works to help the community, to protect human rights of migrants, women, children, and rural communities, his pastoral labor is inconvenient for organized crime.”

The pope's message – that Mexico’s problems are the responsibility of the entire population – could make a difference here, says Father Sotelo.

“Slowly, the government and the church leadership are becoming aware of this situation,” he says, adding that he hopes this will lead to more protection for those who work in churches across the country.

Churches look past illegal activity

This isn’t the first time priests have been caught up in the region’s violence. From Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's Robin Hood image in his city of Medellin to present-day Mexico's drug lords who pave roads or maintain the relative peace when they're in control, the church is often under pressure to turn a blind eye to illegal activity, says Rodolfo Soriano Nuñez, a Mexican sociologist and author of “Democracy and Religion in Latin America.” 

In the state of Hidalgo, authorities in 2009 discovered that a Catholic church had been built through the “generosity” of a leader of the deadly Zetas cartel. Some suspect organized criminals use churches for activities such as laundering money or recruiting foot soldiers. 

“If priests are unwilling to play ball with the drug lords, or they tell [parishioners] not to pay extortions, that’s an easy way to become a target,” says Mr. Soriano Nuñez.

Like the majority of crimes in Mexico, most of the murders of these priests have remained unsolved. But they share evidence of a link to organized crime, says Sotelo. "[T]he form in which they are killed, it’s very brutal. It’s torture and assassination and that’s [organized criminals’] way of doing business.” 

Some priests under threat have taken to wearing a bulletproof vest during mass, hiring bodyguards, or cutting back on time spent working with migrants or the poor in cartel-heavy territories.

“Mostly they are killed because their bishops aren’t paying attention,” says Soriano Nuñez. “The church hierarchy is unwilling to criticize the public safety and security policies of the last two governments. They are unwilling to interfere with their relationship with politicians.” 

Many hope the pope’s sharp rebuke of Mexico’s church leaders here will change that.

“Do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests,” Pope Francis said.

“The pope, in his many different messages, mentioned the problems Mexico faces, which are the problems priests are facing,” says Sotelo. “The church, the government, the nation has a responsibility. [The pope] has laid out our work ahead.”

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