Church still a target of Guatemalan army.
"An army and government strategy exists to weaken the power of the Catholic church because the church represents the most active civil opposition in Guatemala," Sister Argentina Cuevas said recently. Cuevas is a member of the Conference of Guatemalan Religious Workers, CONFREGUA.
"Five or six years ago, the church took on a new role, distancing itself from the government and coming closer to the people and their immediate needs."
Tensions recently escalated again between the government and the church when Helen Mack, sister of murdered anthropologist Myrna Mack, sought and got a conviction of former presidential security guard Noel Beteta for her sister's 1990 stabbing. Mack had worked closely with the Archdiocesan Human Rights Legal Office.
A further element of discontent is Jesuit Father Ricardo Falla's recent publication of "Massacres in the Jungle," a detailed account of the effects of the army's brutal counter insurgency campaign on the rural population in the early 1980s in Northern Guatemala. Falla is an anthropologist.
The government and military have sharply attacked Falla, who is an anthropologist, as well as the human-rights office, which has been accused of sympathizing with leftist rebels.
And this month the government charged that documents found in a December army raid on a town in northern Guatemala implicate Falla of being renowned guerrilla leader Commander Marcos. The church denies all allegations and contends its work is solely humanitarian and not political.
Archbishop Prospero Penados de Barrios said, "The enemy of the church is violence; you can never achieve anything by force. And for this reason, they (the government) misconstrue the work of the church, but the church is clean. This office does not exist to accuse the government, but to denounce evil."
Until the mid-1980s, the central church hierarchy represented the interests of the Guatemalan right wing, steering away from its traditional position only in the past few years, according to Fernando Lopez, a lawyer with the human-rights office.
However, throughout the 1970s, many progressive religious groups flourished in rural areas and became targets of counterinsurgency repression in the early 1980s. Thousands of lay workers and more than 15 priests were murdered by the armed forces and paramilitary death squads, making the death count higher than El Salvador's.
Although overt repression has subsided since the 1980s, the military holds a firm grip on Guatemalan society. Army personnel occupy top positions in all government institutions, including the telephone and electricity companies.
"The army is not only the individuals fighting in the mountains," Cuevas said. "They are involved in businesses, banks and information. They are their own social class."
Said Jesuit Father Gonzalo de Villa of the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences, AVANSCO: "While it is not in the government's interest to have confrontations with the Catholic church, conflict arises when the government is unavoidably pressured by the army. It is the army who really decides what government policy should be."
The most recent pastoral letter of the Guatemalan bishops' conference condemned what it said was a climate of terror provoked by the militarization of the country.
Others attribute the tense relations to President Serrano's fundamentalist evangelical government, which views the Catholic church as competition. Since the 1970s, Protestantism has spread to more than 30 percent of the population, one of the highest concentrations of non-Catholics in Latin America.