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Threats church { July 30 2002 }

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Pope Stresses Peace In Face of Threats to Guatemalan Church
Despite War's End, Rights Activists Feel Beset

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 30, 2002; Page A11

GUATEMALA CITY, July 29 -- Pope John Paul II arrived in Guatemala this afternoon bringing a message of "peace and reconciliation" to a country where violence and threats against Catholic human rights activists are increasing, six years after the end of a 36-year civil war.

"This celebration should be a true moment of grace and renewal for Guatemala," the pope said at an airport arrival ceremony. Although he spoke in a relatively clear voice, his fragile health was evidenced by the custom-made lift that was used to lower him gently from his plane.

"I fervently hope that the noble Guatemalan people, who thirst for God and for spiritual values, who are anxious for peace and reconciliation, solidarity and justice, may live and enjoy the dignity that is theirs," the pope said in Spanish.

The pope, making his third visit to this Central American nation, arrived here after a nearly five-hour flight from Toronto, where he urged a gathering of hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic youths not to be disheartened by the recent sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church.

Those scandals have largely been dismissed here as an American problem that has little relevance to Guatemala. Here the faithful are looking to their spiritual leader for words of strength and reconciliation in the face of poverty and increasing death threats against church activists. Church officials say they and other rights activists are being targeted for their investigations of government-backed abuses during the war, which ended with peace accords in 1996.

"Just because there's a cease-fire doesn't mean we have satisfied the needs of the people -- there isn't peace if there's violence and hunger," said Pedro Baran Tzai, who drove several hours to join crowds of several hundred thousand people who lined the streets of the capital to catch a glimpse of the pope.

"Because of the work the church has done, the people who work in human rights have been under threats," Baran said. "This gives them some relief and the strength to continue ahead despite the threats."

Waving and occasionally smiling, the 82-year-old pontiff made his way through the city in his locally made popemobile -- a pickup truck fitted with a bulletproof glass enclosure housing an elevated, leather seat for the pope.

City streets along the route were covered with miles of the "floral carpets" for which Guatemala is famous. The "carpet" is actually a 12-foot-wide bed of sawdust, decorated with images of the pope, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other religious symbols. Thousands of volunteers worked from before dawn today to carefully sift sawdust through elaborate wooden stencils, topping off the images with rose petals, carnations and pine needles. The welcome mat was destroyed in seconds under the wheels of the popemobile.

More than 500,000 people are expected to attend a Mass on Tuesday at which the pope will canonize Guatemala's first saint, Pedro de San Jose Betancur, a 17th-century Franciscan missionary known here as Hermano Pedro, or Brother Pedro. He was a pioneer in health care and literacy efforts among the country's poor, Mayan Indian population.

In its annual report issued last week, the U.N. Development Program concluded that Guatemala had made little progress in health and education and that its people had the lowest standard of living in Central America.

"With all the violence and the economic situation, we feel something very beautiful that the pope has come here," said Hilda Hernandez, a Guatemala City resident. "He is someone who unites people. And that's what we need in Guatemala -- to be more united."

President Alfonso Portillo, who greeted the pope along with the heads of state of five other Central American nations, is clearly trying to take a more positive approach to the pope's visit than did past leaders.

A Vatican representative delivered a papal letter to Portillo on Friday asking him to declare a moratorium on the death penalty for the rest of his presidency. The next day, Portillo announced that he would seek legislation to abolish the death penalty, even though the vast majority of Guatemalans support it.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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