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Threat to Salvadoran Priests Is Nothing New : Central America: Rightist extremists viewed the slain Jesuit rector as the brains behind the guerrillas.

November 19, 1989|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN SALVADOR — Symbols are rarely subtle in El Salvador, as in the execution-style slayings of six Jesuit educators last week. The killers not only left the bodies for all to see but, in case anyone should miss the point, they shattered the priests' skulls, too.

Father Ignacio Ellacuria, 59, rector of the Jesuit-run Central American University, was the country's leading intellectual and an advocate of peace with justice for the poor. For that, rightist extremists believed he was the brains behind leftist guerrillas in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

"Like in the Spanish Civil War, they are crying, 'Death to the intelligentsia!' " Father Cesar Jerez said after a Mass for the victims Saturday.

"Jesuits have always wanted peace with justice--not war, but justice, and there you touch very profound (economic) structures. That is why they were killed," he said.

Jesuits, and Roman Catholic priests in general, are an integral part of Salvadoran history and society, and such violence against them is nothing new. The Jesuits have educated most of El Salvador's elite, including many of those who now view them as Communists and traitors.

Throughout a decade of civil war, the UCA, as the university is called, has been a bastion of liberal thought in El Salvador. Ellacuria and the other university leaders who were killed had pushed for dialogue between the government and rebels and put forth proposals for a political solution to the decade-long civil war.

When the media were bombed or gagged, the university was one of the few sources of independent information. Ellacuria tried to be a voice of reason.

"These were not the only reasonable men in El Salvador," said a former faculty member. "But this shows that El Salvador is not a safe place for reasonable men."

The Jesuits' first conflicts with the country's landed oligarchy were over education. In 1974, priests teaching at the elite Externado de San Jose decided to open the doors of its elementary through high school to poor students. The decision offended the rich.

"The dominant classes felt betrayed," said Jerez, who served with the Society of Jesus then. Today, he is the rector of the UCA in Nicaragua.

In the following years, many young Salvadoran priests took up the Vatican's call to denounce institutionalized violence and to work for the "preferential option of the poor," a religious current that became known as "liberation theology."

One of those, a Jesuit named Rutilio Grande, moved to the town of Aguilares, north of San Salvador, where he lived with impoverished farmers and backed their demands for land and better salaries.

Grande was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in March, 1977. Two months later, another priest, Father Alfonso Navarro, was killed in his parish in the capital. More than a dozen others were expelled or denied re-entry into El Salvador. The Jesuit-run radio YSAX was bombed, and pamphlets circulated that said, "Be a Patriot! Kill a Priest."

Amid the violence, several young seminarians joined the armed Popular Liberation Forces, one of the five groups that eventually would make up the Farabundo Marti front. Ellacuria opposed their decision, arguing that they should work within legal institutions; instead, they left the Jesuit order.

In 1979, a group of reform-minded army officers ousted the military government in a coup. The new civilian-military junta included Ramon Mayorga, the rector of the Central American University. The new Cabinet was filled with professors from the UCA, and Ellacuria replaced Mayorga as rector of the university.

The violence continued. The archbishop of San Salvador, Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, issued a public plea to soldiers to "disobey orders" and cease the repression. In March, 1980, Romero was gunned down while saying Mass. Ellacuria spent much of that year in exile.

Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, a founding father of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, often has been accused of masterminding the Romero killing. Now, a member of the Legislative Assembly, D'Aubuisson has always denied that charge and all allegations that he operated death squads.

In a 1983 interview with The Times, D'Aubuisson said he considered Jesuits to be more dangerous than armed rebels--the "worst scum," he called them. He said the "black Pope"-- invoking the ancient nickname of the head of the order--may have masterminded leftist rebel operations in El Salvador, Cuba and other countries.

To many church and political observers, the deaths of Ellacuria and the five other priests mark a return to the violence of the early 1980s.

The military has denied any involvement in the killing of Ellacuria and his colleagues.

The church, meanwhile has renewed Ellacuria's call for dialogue. Pope John Paul II has appealed to the two sides for a cease-fire.

A reply to the Pope was circulated among foreign journalists Saturday, calling for the expulsion of several unnamed Salvadoran bishops. The letter bore the seal of Atty. Gen. Francisco Colorado and a signature. Colorado could not be reached to verify its authenticity.

"For a long time in this suffering country, there has existed a tendency called the Popular Church, which large sectors of society blame for the violence that has shaken El Salvador for many years, which has culminated in the rebels' violent actions this week," the attorney general wrote.

"For that reason . . . I would like to suggest to the Beloved Father, for the security and well-being of all the Salvadoran flock, the at least temporary withdrawal from Salvadoran territory of the bishops," the letter said.

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