End of an era for the Amazon's turbulent priests

Tue Feb 10, 2009 8:37pm EST
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By Stuart Grudgings

ABAETETUBA, Brazil (Reuters) - They avoid taking buses, make sure friends know their schedules, and rarely go out when it's dark.

For the three foreign-born Roman Catholic bishops under death threat in Brazil's northeastern state of Para, speaking out against social ills that plague this often-lawless area at the Amazon River's mouth has come at a price.

Yet they still noisily involve themselves in rights issues here, part of a tradition of Catholic priests who came to Latin America with their views formed by 1970s Liberation Theology that emphasizes justice for the poor and oppressed.

It is a tradition that is dying as the missionaries who came here in the 1960s, 70s and 80s grow older and the flow of priests from Europe and the United States dries up as fewer people enter the Church.

"When I first came here there were many more foreign priests. Now we go years without anyone new arriving," said Bishop Flavio Giovenale, a tall Italian with an infectious grin who began his first mission in Brazil 34 years ago.

For the past 11 years he has been the bishop of Abaetetuba, a dirt-poor riverbank town about 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of the state capital Belem. He has faced regular death threats for speaking out against social problems and crime that have steadily grown as the area became a transit point for cocaine shipped down the world's greatest river from Colombia.

At 54 he is one of the youngest of Para's 11 foreign-born bishops, who often find themselves on the front lines of rights battles due to high levels of violence, land disputes and drug trafficking combined with a widespread absence of government. The powerful, including corrupt politicians and police, are often the ones with most to lose from their denunciations.

Para, the second-biggest state in the world's largest Catholic nation, has a total of 13 bishops for a population of about 7 million people.   Continued...

<p>Italian Bishop Flavio Giovenale listens to a question during an interview with Reuters in Abaetetuba city in the Brazil's northeastern state of Para, February 3, 2009. REUTERS/Paulo Santos</p>