University of Minnesota

Report on the Situation of Human Rights in The Republic of Guatemala, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.53, Doc. 21 rev. 2 (1981).





A. General Considerations

1. As stated in Chapter I of this report, the Constitution of Guatemala guarantees freedom of conscience and of religion, recognizing free profession of the faiths.

The Constitution provides that the profession of any religion is guaranteed. It adds that every person has the right to practice his religion or belief in public or in private, through instruction, worship, and observance, limited only by peace, good morals, public order, and the respect due to the country's symbols. Religious associations and groups are prohibited from participating in partisan politics and ministers of faiths from campaign.2

2. Moreover, the Constitution recognizes the Catholic Church and all other faiths as juridical persons, and they may acquire, possess and dispose of property “provided such property is intended for religious purposes, social welfare, or education.” This provision, furthermore, indicates that church property is entitled to exemption from taxes, assessments, and excises. It further provides that the legal capacity of churches shall be determined by the rules of their own organization or constitutive basis, and that the state shall issue to the Catholic Church deeds of ownership in real property which it now peacefully possesses for its own purposes. It likewise provides that “property recorded in the name of third persons or of the state for its services may not be affected.”3

B. Effect on this right in practice

1. The Commission has had no knowledge that the Constitutional precepts cited to permit practice of faiths by the ministers of the different religious groups and the people of the country have ceased to be applied generally, although it knows of many cases in which ministers have been victims of political violence and governmental repression.4

2. Gradually over the last few years, priests have been subject to increasing risk and danger, especially those priests working in the rural and Indian areas in religious and social welfare activities. These conditions worsened to the point that on November 1, 1980, Pope John Paul II addressed the bishops of Guatemala to express his concern. The letter of the Sovereign Pontiff states as follows:

The news of the conditions of your nation and, in particular, of your ecclesiastical communities has deeply affected me. My prayers go out to you, and I wish that I might be near you, especially to offer my comfort and encouragement in your pastoral mission.

I am well aware that you have frequently expressed your concern in recent months, even publicly, about the many acts of violence, that have now reached excessive proportions and have disrupted the country. I am also aware of your repeated appeals for an end to what you have justifiably called 'the path to self destruction,' which violates every human right—primarily, the sacred right to life—and which in no way helps to resolve the social problems of the nation.

I share your pain at the suffering and tragic number of deaths, which gives no signs of declining and affects so many families and ecclesiastical communities, which have been impoverished by the loss of so many novitiates and priests who have died through treachery, under dubious and sometimes despicable circumstances.

I am particularly saddened at the situation that has arisen in the diocese of El Quiché, where because of criminal acts and threats of death against the clergy, church attendance continues to fall short.

Venerable brothers, you have witnessed the roots of the unrest upsetting Guatemalan society in a “deep crisis of humanism,” in which spiritual values have given way to egoism, violence, and terrorism.

United with you and through you, I want to urge and plead with all in authority in the country to spare no effort to put a stop to this wave of discord and hate; to do everything possible to ensure tranquility and safety for the citizens and to guarantee to the Church that it will be able to perform its evangelical mission, which is to prepare all for a deep conversion from within and to bring about a meeting of minds.

Social reform in Guatemala has been a widespread desire for some time, so that every man may have a more just and decent life. In keeping with these aspirations, I reaffirm what I have said several times on my apostolic journeys, that the Church must inspire those responsible for the common good to undertake these reforms decisively and boldly, farsightedly and effectively, taking into account criteria of justice and the principles of a true social ethic. Let us remind ourselves that the Church want to offer its particular cooperation, with a view to a social progress that embodies both the spiritual and material requirements of man. The Church points the way to achieve this objective. It involves a united commitment on the part of all to replace egoistic ideologies and predominance of group or party interest by genuine values of brotherhood, justice, and love.

I encourage priests, monks and nuns, and laymen who have pledged themselves to different sectors of the apostolate to work closely with you, venerable brothers, to offer the testimonial of faith and unity, boldness and abnegation, that should characterize every disciple of Christ.

I call upon our dear brothers of the Church of Guatemala to keep up their hope—the hope that may sustain them in these difficult times and help them to remain faithful to their own Christian calling.

I call upon God to aid and assist you, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Christ and of the Church. To you, venerable brothers, to all who collaborate with you in your pastoral work and to the entire clergy, I give my paternal apostolic blessing.

Vatican, November 1, 1980

John Paul II

3. There are many international organizations and religious associations that have denounced the continuing threats against the clergy in Guatemala. On January 11, 1980, the Provincial Superior of the Company of Jesus in Central America and Panama, the National Council of Jesuits of Guatemala, and the superiors of Jesuit communities in Central America and Panama issued a declaration in which they stated that “In this painful but at the same time hopeful hour for the people of Guatemala, we Jesuits who sign this declaration endorse the views of the Latin American church in Puebla, which does its evangelical work in the hemisphere under the banner of giving preferential attention to the poor;” and he adds that “declarations such as these displease the powerful and may induce repression against us.” It is reiterated in this declaration that the Jesuits will work in behalf of the needy of that country “with a view to their general liberation.”5

A few months ago, the Brotherhood of Evangelical Christians of the People addressed the evangelical people and Christian people of Guatemala and of the world, denouncing the murder on November 19 of their minister Santos Jiménez Martínez “while he was conducting a service in worship of God, in the 'parcelamiento La Esperanza' of Santo Domingo Suchitepequez.” The aforementioned religious sect states: “We denounce this new act of bloodshed committed against a Christian who, following the evangelical mandate, was endeavoring to announce the good news to the poor and to the mistreated, proclaiming to them that the moment of their freedom had now arrived, the year of the grace of the lord.”

On July 24, 1980, the Catholic Church of Guatemala, represented by its bishops meeting in Episcopal Conference, expressed the following to the people of Guatemala:

1. Its deep concern about the persecution of the Church, especially the diocese of El Quiché, recently aggravated by the treacherous murder of priests, by the continual death threats against priests, monks, and other members of the ministry, and by an atmosphere of insecurity that prevents any evangelical and clerical activity.

2. Its brotherly solidarity with the bishop, priests, monks, ministers, and the faithful of this diocese, and the fact that the Church is in sympathy with their sufferings.

3. Its willingness to establish a dialogue with the authorities to enable the Church, with the aid of God, to carry out its mission within the framework of religious freedom, which is a human right, which even our Constitution sanctions.

4. The Church asks the priests, monks, and faithful of Guatemala to pray constantly to the Lord that this very serious problem may be solved as quickly as possible.

5. In view of the seriousness of the situation and at the unanimous request of the Episcopal Conference, the Bishop of the Diocese of El Quiché will personally explain the situation of the diocese to Pope John Paul II.

On August 6, 1981, the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala issued a new communiqué, which contains the following thoughts:

The Catholic Church, which for more than 400 years has been present in the life of the Guatemalan people, accompanying them in their joys and in their sorrows and guiding them in the search for the highest values, is today as never before in its history a victim of unjust attacks and violent aggression.

As we have pointed out on other occasions, the Church suffers persecution, as history has made evident, because of its loyal fulfillment of the mission that Christ entrusted to it, to redeem man from sin and from all its consequences, announcing redemption and vigorously denouncing all that is opposed to the temporal and eternal fulfillment of man as a whole and of all men.

In the present and specific case of Guatemala, besides the murder or disappearance of 12 priests (seven of them just in 1981) and the violent death of many religious teachers and members of our Christian communities, everyone knows that in the last few days a publicity campaign has been unleashed which tends to discredit the mother and teacher Church in the eyes of its children.

In view of the confusion and perplexity that this tendentious campaign is undoubtedly causing among the Catholic people, we are calmly but firmly raising our voice as pastors to clarify some false information and to provide guidance to the faithful with out thoughts.

FIRST. With an unusual show of publicity, the word has been spread through all the media, based on the alleged statements of a dying man, that “two foreign priests” served as commanders of a guerrilla faction and died in an armed confrontation with national security forces. We have been made powerfully aware of the way in which official spokesmen have repeatedly classified these two people as “priests,” when the very documentation presented to the media indicates that they were laymen. Hence we categorically affirm that Messrs. Raúl Joseph Leger, of Canadian nationality, and Angel Martínez Rodrigo, of Spanish nationality, were not priests nor were they members of any religious community whatever, although they had entered the country some years ago as volunteers to work in the field of human development. Although they performed praiseworthy work as lay missionaries, for some time they had been disassociated from the pastoral activities of their respective dioceses.

SECOND. Much currency has also been given to the alleged statement of Donald McKennan, who for some time worked as a priest in the Diocese of Quiché and publishes a Mexican magazine. According to these statements, it would seem that this person is enrolled in a guerrilla organization and follows “precise instructions of a bishop,” Monsignor Juan Gerardi. We must make it equally clear here that if a priest or other persons of the cloth chooses—in our pinion mistakenly—to join any political faction or subversive group, he ceases to belong to the pastoral organizations of the Church, and therefore the hierarchy cannot take responsibility for his later actions. Moreover, knowing the views of Monsignor Gerardo Conedera, his unequivocal evangelical work, and his complete loyalty to the rulings of the Church, we firmly reject the alleged statements of Donald McKennan, aiming to denigrate the bishop of Quiché and President of the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala.

THIRD. The documentation presented by official spokesmen at a recent press conference includes various letters from the former Bishop of Quetzaltenango, Monsignor Luis Manresa Formosa, and from Monsignor Oscar García Urízar, current Bishop of that diocese. These letters request permission for Mr. Raúl Joseph Leger to remain in the country as a layman in the Parish of Concepción, Chiquirichapa. We wish to state in this regard that these letters were written in keeping with the national laws on migration, and the bishops endorsed Mr. Leger only during the time he was at the service of the diocese.

FOURTH. As bishops, we deeply regret that persons who are connected in any way or another with the Church's pastoral activities have chosen the way of armed struggle to solve the tremendous social, economic and political problems which afflict our country. Any terrorist action deserves our condemnation, and we would never be able to endorse with our moral support those who engage in such activities, just as we cannot foster activities which lead to the establishment of communism in our country. In numerous documents, we have stated very clearly our thinking in this regard, which thinking is fully shared by the great majority of our priests, devote people and other pastoral agents. Therefore, a very serious injustice is committed when accusations are made against or when there is an attempt to defame the Catholic Church—which for so many reasons deserves the esteem and appreciation of the Guatemalan people—due to the personal choice of some of its members.

FIFTH. We consider it appropriate to set forth for consideration by the Catholic Nation of Guatemala and by the men of goodwill, certain situations which do not help our normal relations with the authorities and which are detrimental to the peace our country urgently needs:

1. On several occasions, we, the bishops of Guatemala, have sought ways to a frank, respectful and calm dialogue with the country's authorities aimed at clarifying ambiguous situations, dispelling possible mutual preconceptions, and joining efforts on behalf of the Guatemalan people. We have the painful impression that these efforts have not achieved the success desired. At our request, representatives of the central government had kindly offered, when problems or accusations against one of our pastoral agents arose, to make this fact known to the corresponding bishop and to seek an efficient and commonly agreed upon solution. Also, the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala appointed a Committee of three bishops with whom the authorities offered to engage in discussions when conflicting situations with members of the Church occurred. Thus far, these lines of dialogue have not functioned in practice. Nevertheless, because we believe it is the best way to avoid or to settle unnecessary conflicts, we remain open to the dialogue offered us from the beginning.

2. According to information in the press, the Minister of Education has announced that “all priests and men of the cloth of the country will be investigated by the government to determine whether they have ties with extremis groups” (Diario El Gráfico, August 5, 1981). We have no fear of such an investigation, if it is objective and truthful, but we consider it highgly offensive to the Catholic Church, because it is thereby attempted to put it on a level of illegality. As citizens or residents of the country, we know that we are subject to Guatemalan law and we try to obey it. Therefore we cannot accept having ourselves as well as our institutions being subjected to continuous suspicion and constant surveillance. Nevertheless, if one of us breaks the law, we accept his being brought to trial, since in a state of law there must be competent tribunals to judge defendants and to punish those found guilty in a legal trial.

SIXTH. We must be very clear in stating to all those who boast of being Catholic that the situation in Guatemala has reached the point where a categorical definition of each of us is required, as Christ requires of us when he tells us that “no man can serve two masters” (Matt., 6:24) and “he that is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). It is inconceivable that there can be Catholics who go to mass and even come forward to receive the body of Christ and later are indifferent when their priests are killed or their brothers are tortured or massacred. Some even approve of these acts and their voices to hose which revile their mother, the Holy Church. We bring to mind in this respect the fact that those who assault the ministers of the church are excommunicated. Future generations will accuse us if, due to our indifference or passivity, our temples are closed and the entire educational and charitable work the Church carries out is stopped and our people are left abandoned like sheep without a shepherd.

SEVENTH. Added in recent days to the painful events we have outlined are the murder of Father Francisco Stanley Rother, a zealous priest and generous benefactor of Santiago Atitlán Parish, and the abduction of Father Carlos Pérez Alonso, of the Jesuits, a virtuous man who has won the affection of countless persons due to his apostolic zeal and his many-sided pastoral activities. In condemning these new acts of violence, we wish to express our solidarity with the Dioceses of Sololá and Oklahoma and to give the Jesuits our word of support and fraternal solidarity at this time when they are being subjected to a ruthless campaign of defamation and fear.

We can do no less than also to express our constant concern for the life and physical safety of our priests, men of the cloth and religious teachers. This is because, under the present circumstances, due precisely to the campaigns to discredit the Church and due to the impunity with which the sacrilegious crimes have been committed, anybody, even because of unimportant matters, considers himself authorized and encouraged to make threats and even to carry them out against members of the clergy and of the religious communities.

C. Some examples of violations of this right

1. As stated, persecution and harassment of priests have increased in recent years, and there are several known cases of expulsions, kidnappings, disappearances, and murders. Following are some examples of these acts:

a. Case 7377: Disappearance of the priest Miguel Conrado de la Cruz

The Commission received a denunciation dated May 30, 1980, the pertinent parts of which state as follows:

We denounce the disappearance of Father Miguel Conrado de la Cruz, priest and active member of the Comisión Justicia y Paz. According to our information, he was arrested on May 1, 1980 in Guatemala City but his arrest has not been acknowledged.6

b. Case 7378: Arrest and expulsion of the priest Carlos Stetter7

c. Situation of Bishop Juan Gerardi

The Commission received the denunciation dated November 24, 1980, the pertinent parts of which are the following:

Bishop Juan Gerardi, President of the Conference of Bishops of Guatemala and native of that country, was denied reentry into Guatemala on November 22.

Bishop Gerardi was returning from Rome where he took part in the synod of the Roman Catholic Church and where, at the request of the Conference of Bishops of Guatemala, he presented a personal report to Pope John Paul II on the situation of the Church in Guatemala.

Bishop Gerardi escaped a murder attempt on July 19, 1980. In the company of priests and nuns of the diocese of El Quiché, he left that diocese in order to save their lives.8

This case continues under the consideration of the IACHR.

2. Since May 1981, there have been new disappearances and killings of priests regarding which the Commission has received several reports. These cases include the following: Franciscan Father Tulio M. Maruzzo, killed in Los Amates, Department of Izabal; Jesuit Father Luis Eduardo Pellecer, abducted and missing from Guatemala City; Diocesan Missionary Father, Stanley Rother, killed in Santiago Atitlán.

3. The cases cited are examples of the situation of the clergy in Guatemala. Moreover, the Commission has in its possession and has analyzed documents and reports of harassment, kidnapping, disappearance, and murder of several members of the clergy, priests, and assistants of the laity. Notwithstanding the foregoing, and in spite of the requests of the Commission in the cases whose processing it has concluded, the Guatemalan Government has failed to send it documents in evidence that it has initiated serious investigations on the matter to clarify the acts and punish those responsible for them.9

4. In conclusion, in the view of the Commission, although there is no formal restriction in Guatemala on freedom to worship in any of the different religious faiths, the conditions created by violence in the country—which, in this respect, have been reflected in persecutions and even murders of members of the clergy and priests—have in practice put serious obstacles in the way of freedom of worship and religion.



1 The American Convention on Human Rights, in Article 12, provides for the following: “Freedom of Conscience and Religion. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and of religion. This right includes freedom to maintain or to change one's religion or beliefs, and freedom to profess or disseminate one's religion or beliefs, either individually or together with others, in public or in private. 2. No one shall be subject to restrictions that might impair his freedom to maintain or to change his religion or beliefs. 3. Freedom to manifest one's religion and beliefs may be subject only to the limitations prescribed by law that are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights or freedoms of others. 4. Parents or guardians, as the case may be, have the right to provide for the religious and moral education of their children or wards that is in accord with their own convictions.”

2 Article 66 of the Constitution.

3 Article 67 of the Constitution.

4 The following statement is made in the aforementioned report of the mission of the International Commission of Jurists that visited Guatemala: “It should be mentioned from the outset that in comparison with its neighbor El Salvador, many different Protestant sects function in Guatemala. This phenomenon has its origin in the Liberal revolution of 1870, in which the lands of the Catholic Church were expropriated and religious orders expelled. In El Salvador, the Archbishop of San Salvador is the principal spokesman of the opposition against government repression. In contrast, in Guatemala, Cardinal Mario Casariego follows the traditional model of a Spanish colonial primate. Although in recent years the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala has issued two pastoral letters expressing social concern, no open position has been taken against the wave of violence. The last pastoral letter, 'Fe y Política,' published before the last presidential election, spoke of the obligation to vote, but did not mention the situation confronting the voter. The bishops made no statement whatever about the overwhelming fraud committed during the election. More important even, although the characters have changed during the last 25 years of military rule, is the support that the Catholic Church has been giving to the status quo. It is known that statements have been made by the bishops of Quiché, Zapaca, and Verapaces, regions of conflict. Bishop Flores de Panzós, celebrating mass in connection with the massacre that had occurred in the area, sent a message in which he said that the protest of the Indians that led to the massacre originated in the robbing of their lands, and that 'only the boundless generosity of the rural community had prevented a crisis of violence that might have resulted from the robbing of the lands.' The bishop also said that the government had taken no effective measure to solve the problems that produced this unjustified massacre. Another factor that thrust the Catholic Church into an area of conflict is the putting into practice of the declarations adopted at two Latin American Episcopal Conferences. A document published by the first conference indicates that one duty of the Church is 'to stimulate and encourage all efforts of the people to establish and develop their base organizations' (Medellín Doc. Nº 2/27). The second Latin American Meeting of Bishops, held this year in Puebla, Mexico, endorsed this position and reaffirmed the support of the bishops to 'the aspirations of the workers and campesinos, who want to be treated like free and responsible men and called upon to have a part in the decisions affecting their lives and their future' (Puebla Doc. 1162). This mission has resulted in some members of the clergy being accused of fomenting subversion. General Otto Spiegler, Minister of Defense of Guatemala, publicly charged the members of the clergy with responsibility for the massacre of Panzós and said that they had incited the protest of the Indians. Some days later, the Government confirmed the accusation with the expulsion from the country of Sister Raimunda Alonso for 'having participated in political activities that were not within her religious domain.' With no further explanation, on December 20, 1978, the Government expelled Father Carlos Stetter of the parish of Ixcán. On June 6, 1979, Father Gregorio Barreales of the parish Salamá, Baja Verapaz, was expelled from the country. Besides these expulsions of foreign members of the clergy, the various security forces had taken measures against the 'catechists,' lay leaders of the rural parishes. In July 1978, a catechist by the name of Mario Mujía Córdoba was murdered. He also was a promoter of the CNT and known familiarly as 'Guiqui.' These acts are becoming increasingly more frequent in regions where the Army conducts 'maneuvers' such as Quiché and Ixil. As recent examples, we might mention the murder of one catechist in Cozal and the kidnapping of another, which occurred in July 1979. It was believed that violence would not be used against priests. However, this threshold was crossed on June 29, 1978 with the murder of Father Hermógenes López of the Parish of San José Pinula. Recently, clandestine anticommunist organizations have published lists, carrying death threats to the bishops that have protested against various aspects of the prevailing repression, but to date none of these threats has been carried out. Altogether, religious institutions in Guatemala are leaning more toward stability rather than toward change, due to the concern of the Protestant sects for the hereafter and to the institutional conservatism of the Catholic Church.”

5 Some of the points mentioned in the Declaration are the following: “a. Earnings of the large coffee, sugar cane, and cotton plantations within the system have been increasing daily. In six months, the international price of sugar rose from Q.7.80 to Q.16.31; the price of coffee increased from Q.151.54 to Q.181.36 (and often exceeding Q.200.00 in the months between); and the price of cotton increased from Q.1.93 to Q.74.06 (comparisons are taken to May 30 and December 31, 1979; see: Inforpress Centroamericana, nn. 344 and 373). In the meantime, wages of the field workers have remained the same. Earnings from the above are in the millions (and in the case of cotton, to the repeated detriment of the health and even to the life of many Guatemalans). One example will suffice to show what Pope II calls the emergence of “the rich who are getting richer at the expense of the poor who are getting poorer” (John Paul II Inaugural Address in Puebla. III.4). In Guatemala, public employees are promised wages increases, but immediately comes the announcement of a rise in prices of bread, gas, light, water...; and living conditions in general in the cities, e.g., unemployment, scarce and wretched housing, etc., plunge the wage earners into misery comparable to that of the rural workers. b. This distressing situation persists, along with a suppression that ranks among the harshest in recent Guatemalan history. An unjustly powerful regime thus tries to prevent the working people from claiming their just rights. In our country, there is kidnapping, torture, and murder, under the shield of unlicensed vehicles, nocturnal ambush, and selective but at the same time mass and indiscriminate terror. The authorities reported recently that in the first ten months of 1979 there were 3.252 murders in this country by the so-called 'Escuadrón de la Muerte' (Newspaper 'Impacto,' Guatemala, November 14, 1979. All these horrendous crimes remain unpunished. Moreover, it is now proverbial that in Guatemala there are no political prisoners, only dead and missing. The Indians of Guatemala, more than half of the population and producers of most of the national wealth, are exploited and discriminated against, both on the large plantations where they go to harvest the crops for export and in their communities of origin where land is poor and scarce and no longer offers either work or subsistence. Added to this exploitation is the oppression endured by these farmers whose fundamental and constitutional rights are flagrantly violated (see Article 11 Nº 7 and 43 of the Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala) when they are pursued and seized against their will to render military service.”

6 The Commission proceeded to open and process the case, addressing the Government of Guatemala in a communication dated June 25, 1980. In communications of December 16, 1980 and April 20, 1981, the Commission again addressed the Guatemalan Government requesting information. This case continues under the consideration of the IACHR.

7 This case, which was the subject of a resolution by the IACHR, is contained in Chapter III. See page 39 of this report.

8 The Commission opened and proceeded to process the case, addressing the Government of Guatemala in a communication of April 3, 1981.

9 It should be mentioned that on May 16, 1980, the then Vice President of Guatemala, Francisco Villagrán Kramer, addressed the Representative of the Holy See in Guatemala with regard to acts of violence against priests and the fact that these acts had not been investigated. He stated as follows in his letter: “It is with deep sorrow and concern that I send you this message of condolence for the tragic death of the Belgian priest, Walter Woordeckers, and the kidnapping of the Filipino priest, Conrado C. de la Cruz. Both acts occurred as a result of initial antagonism, which has resulted in many victims, whose calling is deeply peaceful. It would be desirable if His Holiness John Paul II could use his moral authority to urge that this type of acts be investigated by competent authorities and that the necessary legal procedures be ordered; also, that those who promote these acts of violence weigh the scope of the destruction brought about by them. I am personally concerned at the worsening of this initial antagonism and the fact that positions are becoming more and more polarized. Hence, I ask you to convey my deepest sympathy and thoughts to His Holiness in the hope that these may be shared.” The Diplomatic Representative of His Holiness replied to the Vice President of Guatemala on May 22, 1980, stating as follows: “I am honored to acknowledge your message—letter of May 16 and greatly appreciate your sympathy. The Holy Father will be greatly comforted to receive your condolences. For me, it is a real pleasure to oblige you by conveying your wishes to the Pope, which are rooted in law and justice, and your concern about the serious consequences that may ensue from these sad beginnings. I am pleased to serve you and, in so doing, the cause of peace and harmony for this dear Guatemala.”


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