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Sanctuary : Church Takes Risks to Aid Central American Emigres

March 07, 1985|VIRGINIA ESCALANTE | Times Staff Writer

Saying that the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and deprived of food, Martinez recalled, "We would ask for water and they would give us urine."

Though he cannot confirm the truth of the refugees' stories, Pastor Santillana pointed to Census figures that show there were 94,447 Salvadorans in the United States in 1979 and to estimates of 500,000 Salvadorans who are here now, with or without appropriate documents.

"That tells us something terrible is happening in El Salvador," he said.

Slain Archbishop

More churches will declare themselves sanctuaries, Santillana predicted, especially this month when they observe the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken critic of the Salvadoran regime who was slain at his altar in San Salvador in 1980.

Referring to the arrest of 16 sanctuary workers in Arizona, Santillana said, "They (the Reagan Administration) figure if they persecute people in Arizona (where the sanctuary movement began) that they can chop the head of the movement."

Those arrested in Arizona on Jan. 23 included three nuns, two priests and a minister. They were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy, smuggling undocumented immigrants and transporting, concealing and harboring persons in the country illegally. They face trial in April and maximum penalties of five years imprisonment and fines ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.

Though Santillana is not financially prepared to fight an indictment, the United Methodist Church has created a fund for the movement, is supporting those who have been arrested and is calling for more churches to become sanctuaries.

Like Santillana, members of the congregation hold to the belief that caring for others is an act of faith, an act that must somehow be preserved.

"I believe the love of human beings has to come first," said church member Josefina Gonzales. "We all have to help each other. That's why this world is the way it is. We have lost faith in one another."

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