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Regional Outlook : The Cross and the Gun : Since the fire of liberation theology began spreading in Latin America, priests and revolutionaries have made an unsettling alliance. Now, bloody reprisals have caused many to question that alliance. Will the fire go out?


PERQUIN, El Salvador — For Fathers Rogelio Ponseele and Esteban Velazquez, the Kingdom of Heaven is found in this war-battered village in northeastern El Salvador. Their beliefs are in God and armed revolution.

The two Jesuit priests carry no guns, but they are forces, major ones, in the decade-long war by the radical leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front against the armed forces and the oligarchic government of the country.

Ponseele and Velazquez are the advance guard, the personification, of one of the Roman Catholic Church's most controversial movements--liberation theology, a 22-year-old philosophy founded in the belief that economic, social and political oppression are sins that can be eradicated only when the oppressed seize control of their own destiny, even if that means with a gun.

So on a recent Sunday, the Belgian Ponseele and the Spaniard Velazquez offered communion to guerrillas bearing grenades, bandoleers of bullets and loaded AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 23, 1990 Home Edition World Report Part H Page 7 Column 1 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Liberation Theology--An article in the Oct. 9 issue of World Report dealing with the changing role of Liberation Theology misidentified Fathers Gustavo Gutierrez and Rogelio Ponseele as members of the Jesuit order. Although Gutierriez is a major influence on Jesuits who advocate Liberation Theology, and Ponseele attended Jesuit schools, neither is a member of that order.

The town's church has been shuttered, as has many of the other buildings. Pro-FMLN graffiti compete on the cracked and chipped walls with pro-army slogans painted by government troops on their infrequent raids.

The services were held in a rambling structure used by pro-guerrilla social action groups, its glassless windows filled with flowering vines. The handful of worshipers were a mix of warriors and civilians, their weathered faces impassive as they mumbled the responses to the Mass, their gnarled fingers moving rosary beads.

And afterward, standing under a fluttering FMLN banner in Perquin's main street and framed by bullet-shattered buildings, the two casually dressed priests told their battle-tested parishioners that they "are fighting a just war . . . at the direction of Christ."

Although one may wonder if the guerrillas, a mixture of young men and women--boys and girls, really--would fully understand all the arguments of liberation theology, its distilled message has been accepted with enthusiasm by the dozens of fighters who have made Perquin the capital of a "liberated zone" in the northern half of Morazan province.

As expressed by the priests in the simple terms of Jesus--love and a "just war"--it is a message that, the guerrillas believe, gives meaning to the bloody life they have led for 10 years.

But there are other lessons from the experience of liberation theology, less inspirational ones, which have been written in the blood of other followers of the movement. The deaths of some of those who have challenged the establishment have brought sober second thoughts about both the basis and the practice of liberation theology.

Just 18 miles south of Perquin is the town of San Francisco Gotera, headquarters of the Salvadoran army's tough 4th Detachment and the scene of a brutal counterattack against liberation theology.

In the 10 years since the civil war began, more than 30 catechists, or Catholic lay leaders, have been assassinated. Under the radical tenets of liberation theology, catechists not only instruct in doctrine but also teach their followers to seek political and economic rights as part of the Gospel.

Of the several hundred catechists trained in northern Morazan, only one continues her work, and she does it in hiding.

And the bloody reaction goes on. Late last year at the height of a guerrilla offensive, army troops raided the Jesuit-operated University of Central America in San Salvador and slaughtered six priests, including Ignacio Ellacuria, a major liberation theologian.

Such a violent counterrevolution here and in other Latin American nations--along with the failure of Eastern European Marxism and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua to bring social, political and economic justice--have led to calls for a new look at liberation theology.

As Paul E. Sigmund, a Princeton University expert, wrote in his recent book "Liberation Theology at the Crossroads":

"How helpful to the poor is revolutionary rhetoric and actions when the lessons . . . seem to have been that such rhetoric and action lead only to counterrevolution by the armed forces?"

So while Ponseele and Velazquez continue to preach and practice their radical view of the Catholic Gospel, some of the basic analytical assumptions and practical applications of liberation theology are being questioned, not just by the conservative elements of the church but also by some of those thinkers who first conceived the philosophy.

Although elements of what came to be known as liberation theology existed throughout much of the history of the Roman Catholic Church, its current form is very much a product of Latin America and the tumultuous decade of the 1960s.

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