Congressional Testimony on the Church in El Salvador, November 17, 1989

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Ambassador Robert T. Hennemeyer, November 17, 1989 

Mr. Chairman, let me first thank you and the committee for this opportunity to offer some comments on the role and position of the church in El Salvador at the present time. By church I will confine my remarks largely to the Roman Catholic Church. 

Most of what I have in the prepared testimony tries to be responsive to the request we were given: to sketch out the church's attitude and response to the present-day situation in the country, but not principally in terms of last-minute developments or breaking stories. 

There has been, however, a tragedy of immense proportions causing great pain and sorrow to the church everywhere — the vicious and cold-blooded slaughter just yesterday morning of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter — that requires our putting this at the top of our discussion. 

It is hard to express adequately our revulsion and sense of loss. These were people known to some of us, admired by many others; their deaths, like that of Archbishop Romero, like those of the four U.S. missionary women, cry out for the justice of God. 

It is too soon after this horrible event to attempt to assess its effect on the fighting or on the peace process, in which some of these men played key roles. It is not too early, however, to repeat with renewed urgency the call of the archbishop of San Salvador for at least an immediate cease-fire or truce to enable the Red Cross to evacuate the wounded and bring desperately needed supplies of food and medicines to communities most affected by the fighting. 

Nor is it too early to insist once again that both sides return to the peace talks. Our government has influence only with one side, but that is no reason for it not to press the Salvadoran authorities, especially those of the armed forces, far more vigorously than now appears to be the case, and to make clear the will of the U.S. government to see an end to the fighting, protection of the innocent and a speedy return to the negotiating table. 

Let me turn now to the more general account. I believe it is generally understood that the church plays a very significant role in the life of the people of El Salvador; that its roots in that society are deep; and that its recent history especially has illustrated in striking ways both the impressive moral strengths and the considerable dangers that accompany a church renewed by the Second Vatican Council and living within a society that is in urgent need of profound, thoroughgoing reform. The figure of Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated 10 years ago next March, stands out as a most apt symbol of that church. 

Just as it would be foolish to ignore the social influence of the church in a society such as El Salvador, it would also be a mistake to imagine the church to have greater power or influence than it really does. I will try to present something of our own understanding of the Salvadoran church from the context of a sister church in another, and very different, country.

A Peacemaking Church

No other institution in El Salvador has pressed longer, more urgently, more consistently, in such a variety of ways for a non-violent and just resolution of the conflict that has torn the country apart for a decade now than has the Catholic Church. And in so noting, it is important also to observe that the church has not done this without cost; suffering and persecution have all accompanied the pilgrimage of this local church. 

There have been attacks from the outside, from the killings of several priests and the archbishop some years ago to last week's vicious verbal attacks on the government radio network against Archbishop Rivera Damas and Bishop Rosa Chavez, accusing them of preaching each Sunday not the Gospel but communist discourses; and of course now, the murder of the Jesuits. 

There are also differences within, no surprise in a church as large and diverse, complaints that the bishops are too far to one side or the other, when in fact they are arguably the only significant body in the country that has both strongly criticized the government as well as the insurgents, and has at the same time been able to maintain productive working relations with both contending forces. That is no small accomplishment and bodes well, if anything does, for the future. 

In the very week that the single radio network functioning during the present state of emergency has carried absurd accusations against the above-named bishops, both were invited by the government to participate in the newly formed National Emergency Committee. 

The bishops have been highly critical of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, as in their statement last Jan. 19 condemning the murders of several mayors and the threats against others; and the same bishops have provided refuge and humanitarian assistance to many thousands considered rebel sympathizers. The bishops have denounced the occupation of churches by wounded FMLN combatants seeking to call international attention to their demand to be allowed to leave the country for medical care abroad; and they have also successfully negotiated with all parties to facilitate the safe departure of well over 200 wounded combatants, the lisiados

It was in January of 1987 that Archbishop Rivera mediated an agreement between the government and the FMLN — the "Panama City Agreement" — that enabled the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate some 157 wounded between January and June of that year, before the government position hardened again. In 1988 some 33 wounded, residing at the archdiocesan refugee center at Calle Real, were enabled to leave, and in 1989, after a prolonged demonstration on the steps of the metropolitan cathedral, another 40 some managed to leave the country. Another smaller group of lisiados, evidently less respectful of the archbishop's wishes, occupied the Calvary church just the week before the current offensive began. 

In his Nov. 12 homily, Archbishop Rivera said that the church could not condone the taking of churches, referring specifically to the roughly two dozen wounded guerrillas at Calvary; the outbreak of fighting through the city has resolved, at least temporarily, the problem of church occupations.

Despite obvious differences among the people that make up the church in El Salvador, as elsewhere, there has developed over the years a consistent, unified position on the part of the bishops' conference regarding the larger picture: the long-standing, deep-rooted injustices and flagrant disregard for people's rights as principal causes for today's conflict; the need to arrive, through persistent and real dialogue, at a negotiated political settlement to the conflict; and the urgency of addressing the root causes of the conflict through genuine social, economic and political reforms. 

On these points there is substantial unity. There is also a general consensus among the bishops not only of El Salvador but of all Central America that, despite the indigenous roots of the several conflicts in the region, there has also developed a wholly undesirable (from their perspective at least) geopoliticization of the region, converting it into a battleground for super-power contention. 

Four years ago the bishops of Central America issued a joint statement in which we find the following: 

  • Armed violence has come to several of our republics, and with it the danger of turning into a regional conflict. This violence continues to bear down on our countries, causing forced displacement of people within each country, the painful drama of refugees, widows and orphans whose numbers grow constantly, the abandonment of farms, the increasing unemployment, hunger and illness, the lack of doctors and medicines.

  • And though the causes of conflicts were internal, two outside forces have come into play; the ideological, generally Marxist, on the part of the revolutionary groups and the other, that of national security which generally issues in repression by the military and the intervention of superpowers seeking to maintain spheres of influence; in their quest for a perilous balance of power, they feed the arms race, foment militarization and place the peace of the region at permanent risk.

  • We can do no less than condemn the war and the consequent sending of arms to Central America, and we issue a fervent invitation to the dialogue for peace.

  • In this connection, we offer our encouragement to our sister church of El Salvador, which has struggled to bring about a dialogue and has been accepted as mediator by both sides. We support as well those efforts of other nations to seek effective ways of ending armed intervention in our countries, the removal of outside forces from the region and the freedom for Central Americans peacefully to settle their differences. At the same time we implore the great powers to resolve their differences in peace and not continue the useless shedding of blood in our region" (Message from the 21st plenary meeting of the Episcopal Secretariat of Central America and Panama; Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 29, 1984).

The Dialogue for Peace

Let me turn now to some of the specific efforts put forth by the Salvadoran church in its peacemaking function. There has been an on-again, off-again process of dialogue between the government and the FMLN that long predates the Esquipulas II region-wide peace process, and no individual was more responsible for it than Archbishop Rivera Damas. He, as well as the other bishops, had repeatedly called on the government and the guerrillas to dialogue about their differences rather than fight over them. After the 1983 visit of Pope John Paul II, during which he reiterated in strongest terms the need for a sincere dialogue between the con-tending parties, the theme became still more central in the church's efforts. 

In 1984 the first historic meeting occurred, under church auspices, at La Palma, followed by the meeting at Ayagualo and a final meeting in this series that took place at the nunciature. But the will to move from dialogue to cease-fire to real negotiations was still not present, and so the dialogue ended. 

The National Debate

In 1987 the archbishop noted that one of the drawbacks of the previous dialogues was the fact that they were limited to just two definable parts of the society — the government and its security forces on the one hand, and the organized opposition and its allied military group, the FMLN. 

Consequently, he resolved to convoke as many of the major "social forces" in the country, the different categories of workers, professionals, voluntary associations and the like, as would be willing to participate. With the technical assistance of the Catholic university (Central American University) to draw up questionnaires and a methodology to process the different views, the general assembly of the "national debate" finally took place in September 1988. 

Although limited by the non-participation of the more conservative and business-oriented groups, the process was important on several levels. The near unanimity of over 60 organized groups on such questions as the causes of the conflict and the need for a political settlement was, if not entirely surprising, impressive nonetheless. The public opinion survey conducted by Central American University through-out the country was the most thorough ever done and, again, testified eloquently to the people's desire for peace. 

The New Dialogue

With the election last March of Mr. Cristiani, it was at first made very clear that the new government was not interested in the mediation of the church for the dialogue that was now being pro-posed. The FMLN, however, was insistent that the church be part of any meeting with the government. Over time an agreement, one that we have considered a truly significant step in the peace process, was arrived at. 

Three dates are significant here. On Aug. 5-6, the summit gathering of the Central American presidents, meeting in Tela, Honduras, gave renewed impetus to the need to find a mechanism to get the dialogue in El Salvador moving again. On Sept. 13-15, a meeting in Mexico brought together representatives of the government of El Salvador and the FMLN, with the participation of Bishop Romeo Tovar Astorga, the president of the Salvadoran bishops' conference, and Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the auxiliary of San Salvador. At this meeting the Mexico Accords were signed by which the contending parties agreed to "dialogue in an effort to reach a negotiated understanding that will end the armed conflict through political means in the shortest time possible, promote the democratization of the country, and reunify Salvadoran society." 

Significantly, given the earlier government reluctance to involve the church, the agreement includes this paragraph:

"The government of El Salvador and the FMLN agree to invite as witnesses two representatives of the Catholic Church, designated by the conference of bishops. These witnesses will additionally serve as intermediaries for logistical arrangements." 

On Oct. 16-17, the two sides again met, this time in San Jose, Costa Rica, and dealt specifically with the issue of ending the fighting. The next meeting, scheduled to begin next Monday in Caracas, Venezuela, has fallen victim, one hopes only temporarily, to the violence of the past weeks. 

The Present Situation

As I mentioned earlier, we are not in a position to report on breaking news, and the next days will almost certainly see many new twists and turns in the decade-long Salvadoran war. I can report, however, on some recent statements of the San Salvador Archdiocese. 

On Sunday, Nov. 12, the day after the FMLN offensive began, the archbishop described it as an act of intimidation, a threat, against the whole populace, which puts everyone in jeopardy. It cannot be squared with the FMLN's professed desire to seek a political, not a military, solution to the conflict, and in fact it gives further encouragement and support to those who do seek a military solution. 

In the same homily, he also expressed the widely shared skepticism regarding the official account of the bombing of the FENASTRAS union headquarters. It was this bombing and the killing of several people just days before that was the ostensible proximate cause of the military offensive. It is clear that the archbishop is persuaded neither of the government story on the bombing nor the FMLN's use of it as justification for abandoning the peace talks. 

On the day before yesterday, Wednesday the 15th, the archdiocese issued a communiqué setting forth the then main concerns of the church. Let me summarize the principal points. 

  1. The archbishop had expressed his concern from the first moment of the current offensive, noting that "10 years of war should have long ago convinced us of the uselessness of violence, and the sorrow of so many innocent defenseless people is reason enough to avoid adding more anguish and desperation to the Salvadoran family."

  2. The archdiocese has been in constant touch with the Salvadoran Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross in order to offer its cooperation in caring for the civilians affected by the fighting.

  3. Given the problems encountered by these agencies in being allowed to enter the conflict areas in order to evacuate the wounded, the archdiocese strongly supports the ICRC's urgent call for an immediate truce to enable the Red Cross and ICRC ambulances to evacuate any of the wounded from the conflict areas of San Salvador.

  4. And given the large numbers of civilians who have managed to escape from the most conflicted areas but who now have no place to go, the archdiocese has opened up several reception centers and has so notified the military high command.


As the Salvadoran bishops call upon their government and the insurgents to remedy their behavior, so the bishops of this country call upon our government to take certain needed measures. Ours is a government whose ties to that of El Salvador could hardly be closer. Few other countries in the world have become as heavily dependent upon the United States and its programs of economic and military aid as has El Salvador. Thus, what the government of El Salvador is and does necessarily implicates our government. We have some unavoidable responsibility for what takes place there. 

Yesterday the president of our conference, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, wrote to President Bush expressing the U.S. bishops' concern about the present policy toward El Salvador. I would be grateful if the letter could be included in the record of these hearings. Let me quote the final paragraph here: 

"We stand with our brother bishops in El Salvador in their call for peace instead of conflict, dialogue in place of violence and their consistent defense of human life, human dignity and human rights. We urge our government to use its considerable influence with the Salvadoran government to press for effective respect for human rights, an end to death squad activity, protection for civilians and church institutions caught up in renewed conflict and the determined pursuit of a just peace through dialogue and negotiations among all the parties." 

Specifically, we ask our government to communicate to the Salvadoran leadership in the most effective and forceful way possible, the following essential concerns: 

  1. That respect for human rights, sadly disregarded particularly in recent months, be given new priority by the government of El Salvador, and that the vigorous and successful investigation and prosecution of the murderers of the six Jesuit fathers and the two women be taken as the test of government resolve. Other killings and human rights violations have demonstrated a deteriorating respect for human life.

    "Congress' authorization of ... military assistance to the government of El Salvador was conditional on improvement in its human rights record and willingness to negotiate a peaceful settlement."

  2. That the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Salvadoran Red Cross be granted immediate access to all areas where wounded civilians or combatants need to be evacuated, and that these same organizations, together with the humanitarian agencies of the Catholic and other churches be allowed to deliver essential food and medical supplies to civilian populations.

  3. That the new centers of reception set up by the churches to provide shelter for people fleeing the conflict be accorded every right and protection provided by international law and ordinary decency.

  4. That both the government and insurgents respect the rights and protect the lives of civilians and non-combatants. That the government of El Salvador be called upon unequivocally to cease any bombing and firing into populated centers, move rapidly to establish a cease-fire and declare its readiness to return to the negotiation table. Likewise, we make similar demands of the insurgents. Their recent offensive and the government's response have left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. It is worth noting that, while the attention of the world is focused on the tragic deaths of the six Jesuits, over a hundred other Salvadorans have died for each one of them.

  5. That the ongoing active discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union give greater prominence to the regional conflicts in Central America, and that the Soviet Union be more strongly encouraged to press its allies in the region to pursue negotiated settlements.

  6. Finally, just as the events of the past week have created many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of newly displaced persons, so the eight years of intense war and social upheaval have sent many thousands of desperate Salvadorans streaming into this country, seeking safety, freedom, a little peace, a chance to live. The church in the United States, through its parishes and diocesan social service agencies, continues to do what it can to welcome and assist these needy refugees. Their legal status, however, needs addressing in far better ways than the present Immigration Reform and Control Act provides, which is why we have consistently supported, as one useful approach to the problem, the temporary remedies of the Moakley and DeConcini bills. The events of this week have clearly demonstrated the need that such legislation be enacted this year.

  7. We want to reiterate that the way to peace and justice in El Salvador is through dialogue and negotiation, not military conflict. The United States must actively, consistently and effectively support the call for dialogue and negotiation by the bishops and presidents of the region. There is no military answer to El Salvador's problems, and the U.S. policy must rely on diplomacy and dialogue, not military force, to achieve its ends.

Mr. Chairman, as Americans we want our government's policies in El Salvador to reflect the best of our national traditions — respect for human life, human dignity and human rights, the pursuit of true justice and genuine peace. As the Catholic bishops' conference we stand with the church in El Salvador in its defense of the poor, in its condemnation of injustice and in its pursuit of dialogue rather than violence to address the problems of their tragic land.