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Death of the Red Bishop



Sept 8, 1999

LONDON- When Archbishop Helder Camara died at the end of last month the president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardosa, declared three days of national mourning. Not bad for a cleric who in his "red bishop" days, as Time magazine once dubbed him, so riled the authorities that they sent a gun squad that rained a hail of bullets into his modest apartment tacked on to the back of a church.

"When I feed the poor they called me a saint", he once said. "When I asked, 'Why are they poor?' they called me a communist."

I don't know personally Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor, the Nobel prize winner, but I see certain important similarities between the two men: a commitment to justice, an anger with those who ignore the poverty of the majority, a preparedness to seek compromise and reconciliation rather than perpetual conflict. Bishop Belo's time of testing has now come- and perhaps he has failed it by fleeing to Australia. Archbishop Camara's passed into history some time ago with the ending of the military dictatorship, against which he'd rallied most of the hierarchy of Brazil's dominant Catholic Church.

I was a cub foreign correspondent at the time of my first visit to Brazil. Imagine my astonishment when I descended the aircraft steps in Recife, the bustling sea port metropolis of Brazil's backward north east states, to see in the waiting crowd a diminuative figure in a frayed black cassock. Dom Helder had heard I was coming, he explained, and wanted to thank me for inviting him to speak at a conference on the Third World in London.

We'd certainly done him proud. He was featured in long newspaper articles and tv programnes and inspired a very large hall full of young, palpitating, would-be revolutionaries, with a message of the struggle of the peasants and proletariat of underdeveloped Brazil, albeit couched with a multitude of references to the tactics of Gandhi, Danilio Dolci, Martin Luther King and all the other great practitioners of non-violence.

He whisked me off in a taxi to be his guest in a seventeenth century convent up on a hill overlooking the old, very unspoilt, town of Olinda, nearby. Over the two week's of my visit one of the younger nuns, an earnest revolutionary herself, told me a lot about the archbishop. "He can talk to everyone. The beggars who come to his door talk to him for two hours over breakfast. If he gets into a taxi he will talk to the driver for the whole of the journey. The most important thing about him is not what he does, but what he gets others to do. He has a gift for helping people to discover they can do great things." "The world will change", Dom Helder explained to me, "when the small people start to believe in the other small people".

Dom Helder, however, also believed in megaphone diplomacy. It was not enough just to wake people up in his own diocese; he used every opportunity to travel to Europe and North America to spread the word about one of the world's most unjust societies whose distribution of income was worse (and still is) than South Africa's. More than any other single person, he made dirt of the reputations of the generals - Geisel of Brazil, Pinochet of Chile and Stroessner of Paraguay.

He was silenced by the government and his name was not allowed to be mentioned in the newspapers or on tv. His house was attacked not once, but four times. One of his closest associates, a priest, was murdered. Another close aide, now a bishop, was imprisoned.

The military government's apparatus of repression and torture slowly withered away under the impact of the criticism of the Church, the probings and publishings of Amnesty International and the pressures from Washington during the term of office of the human rights activist, Jimmy Carter. Helder Camara then turned his attention and that of the Church, now headed by one of his own admirers, Cardinal Evanisto Arns of Sao Paulo, to the workers' movement, led by Ignacio da Silva (who recently lost the presidential election to Mr Cardosa) and to the burning issue of land reform.

For half a century or more politicians have promised the peasantry a fairer share of Brazil's notoriously unequal land holdings. President Cardosa, at last, has begun a serious, if still insufficient, effort to do something about it.

Brazil remains along with Paraguay the most unequally divided place on earth. This has propelled marches, occupations and, on many occasions, in retaliation, the use of armed militias by angry landlords to drive occupying peasants off their land. Killings of demonstrators are not unknown. To protest, bishops and priests, often encouraged by Dom Helder, have joined the peasants' ranks.

Helder Camara, old and infirm, did not live to see the end of the struggle. Only his example and words survive. He was not, pace our youthful exhuberance, a revolutionary. He was not a man of violence. He was simply a radical promoter of a better deal for the poor. "Revolutionary violence is too often paternalistic- imposing ideas on people that they are not ready for." He preferred the slow way of educating, cajoling and pushing, "using weapons that armies cannot use."

In a speech some years ago I heard Helder Camara sum up his credo. "As for peace, it is well known that there can be an instance of false peace, with the same deceptive beauty of stagnant marshes on a moonlit night. The peace which speaks to us, which moves us, for which we are prepared to give our lives, presupposes that the rights of all are fully respected: the rights of God and the rights of men. Not just the rights of some men, a privileged few, to the detriment of others - the rights of each men and all men".

Vague? Not at all. His 90 year life helped change Latin America's largest and most powerful nation for the better and profoundly influenced the rest of the continent too. Three days was not enough to mourn this man.



Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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