Monday, March 24, 2008

March 24

Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, the Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated by members of a right wing death squad on this date in 1980; he was shot in the heart at the Hospital de la Divina Providencia, where he had been leading a funeral mass for a friend’s mother.

Romero had become an unlikely champion for the impoverished peasants of El Salvador, which was in the early stages of a civil war that would eventually claim more than 75,000 lives by the early 1990s. Until the mid-1970s, Romero was a resolutely conservative figure in the Catholic church, focusing on social problems like alcoholism and pornography while many of his peers scrutinized the economic injustices that had left most of the country landless, politically disenfranchised and desperately poor. After witnessing human rights abuses -- including a 1975 massacre at Tres Calles, a village in his own diocese -- Romero began to revise his understanding of the church’s relationship to the poor. Shortly after his 1977 appointment as Archbishop, Romero began to challenge the government openly; when his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande was assassinated in early March 1977, Romero publicly excommunicated the murderers and commenced a three-year nonviolent struggle in concert with El Salvador’s dispossessed.

During this time, the right-wing, authoritarian government of Carlos Romero -- who was not related to the Archbishop -- intensified its pressure on those in the Catholic church who espoused “liberation theology” or who otherwise advocated on behalf of the poor. Death squads and assassins gunned down at least six priests between 1977-1979, and in some villages the possession of religious materials became grounds for arrest. As the death squads accelerated their work, Romero frequently visited the garbage pits where the bodies had been dumped, looking for campseinos whose families had reported them missing.

By 1980, more than 3000 Salvadorans were being killed each month at the hands of government forces who were in many cases armed, trained and funded by the United States, which fretted about the spread of anything resembling communism in Latin America. Romero appealed to the United States to withhold its resources, to no avail.

On March 23, 1980, Romero urged the Salvadoran soldiers to cast down their weapons.
I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin…. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
Oscar Romero understood that his opposition to the government would likely cost him his life. As he explained in his final homily, however, “[O]ne must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”

The day after his appeal to the soldiers, Archbishop Romero joined the long list of Salvadoran martyrs. At his funeral, which was attended by nearly 250,000 people, government soldiers whot and killed as many as 50 mourners. Over the next 12 years, the US Congress and American Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush spent $1.5 million a day in support of the Salvadoran government. Archbishop Romero’s assassin was never captured.

Labels: , ,