HAVANA TIMES, Ecuador, March 26 (IPS) — The appointment of an ultra-conservative priest as apostolic administrator of the diocese of Sucumbíos, in northeastern Ecuador, triggered open rebellion among a large proportion of the area’s Catholics, with the support of civil society organizations and even of President Rafael Correa himself.
The crisis within the Catholic community, which is numerous and influential in this Amazonian province, has stirred up street demonstrations by detractors and partisans of Rafael Ibarguren Schindler, a leading member of the Heralds of the Gospel, a papally-approved far-right Catholic order.
The priest, born in Argentina in 1952 and ordained in 2005, was appointed apostolic vicar of San Miguel de Sucumbíos Oct. 30, 2010, as a temporary replacement for outgoing bishop Gonzalo López Marañón, who was highly respected for the social projects he carried out locally for over 40 years until he resigned at 75, the mandatory retirement age under Church rules.
The Vatican’s decision added fresh controversy to the buzzing provincial capital, Nueva Loja, which is not only the centre of the Ecuadorian oil industry but also a strategic crossover point for refugees and even undercover guerrillas from civil war-torn Colombia, as it is only 18 kilometers from the Colombian border.
The city had already drawn international attention because of the historic Feb. 14 verdict by judge Nicolás Zambrano of the Sucumbíos Provincial Court, who ordered multinational oil giant Chevron to pay 9.5 billion dollars for environmental damage, the largest fine ever imposed on an oil company for pollution. Both sides have appealed the decision.
The popular reaction against Ibarguren Schindler led President Correa, a self-declared “leftwing Catholic,” to say he might even veto the appointment, under a clause of the Modus Vivendi, the 1937 treaty between Ecuador and the Vatican that regulates relations between the Catholic Church and the state.
“In the months since the Heralds of the Gospel and the new administrator took over, they have shown that they are determined to wipe out the whole pastoral ministry that was built up over 40 years in Sucumbíos,” Maritza López, secretary of the ISAMIS Assembly, a body created by López Marañón which is being ignored by the new authorities, told IPS.
The Assembly of the Church of San Miguel de Sucumbíos (ISAMIS) is made up of 120 delegates from basic ecclesial communities (small Christian communities, the cells of the Church), pastoral workers, and members of missionary orders, diocesan clergy and provincial social organizations. It operates as a sort of democratic parliament of the region’s Catholic community.
“The founder of the Heralds was an active member and secretary of the ultra-rightwing Tradition, Family and Property, an association formed (in Brazil) to oppose the left and defend private property against the agrarian reform that was making headway throughout Latin America in the 1960s,” said Maritza López.
In January, by an 80 percent majority, the ISAMIS Assembly voted to ask for Ibarguren Schindler’s resignation.
Since then, the controversy has grown steadily. Members of ISAMIS, who have been holding a vigil since January, started a hunger strike on Sunday Mar. 20 to demand the removal of the apostolic administrator. Meanwhile, Ibarguren Schindler and eight other priests of the Heralds order are seeking support from those who question the social projects promoted by bishop López Marañóñ.
“One of the things they do is to go out and celebrate open-air masses for the oil companies, but they won’t agree to carry forward the pastoral plan that has already been approved, nor will they engage in dialogue with the ISAMIS Assembly,” Felisa de Moncayo told IPS.
In contrast, bishop López Marañón “was one of us, alongside us, and would subject new initiatives and appointments to discussion,” she said.
On Mar. 9, Correa stressed that Ecuador is a secular state, which means it respects religious freedom. But he rejected “wiping out the presence of the Discalced Carmelites in Sucumbíos, at the stroke of a pen, and handing over the province to the Heralds of the Gospel, against the opinion of the Catholic base communities.”
He was speaking at a ceremony in Quito where he decorated López Marañón for his distinguished work on behalf of the poor and his defense of human rights during his four decades as bishop of Sucumbíos, as well as his work in education, health and other areas.
The Discalced Carmelites, to which the former bishop of Sucumbíos belongs, has worked in the Amazon jungle region for decades. Among its members are some of Ecuador’s most distinguished progressive church leaders, such as Alberto Luna Tobar, who with others like Leonidas Proaño was actively committed to the cause of the poor in the country.
The president said the missionary work of López Marañón was a lasting contribution, and that he was one of those Christians who would give their life for the gospel. “He fought the oil companies in order to defend life in all its forms,” he said.
“We do not want futile confrontations or controversies, still less with the Bishops’ Conference, but I wish to tell you that the treaty regulating relations between the secular state of Ecuador and the Vatican permits us to veto the nomination of any bishop,” he said.
“This power has never been used; let us not be obliged to use it now. But if an absurd fundamentalism brings to our Amazonian province orders that emphasize ritual and moral fundamentalism, and wear medieval robes in the middle of the jungle, we will have to use the power vested in us by the Modus Vivendi treaty,” he warned.
The “medieval robes” he referred to are the habits worn by the Heralds of the Gospel: knee-length black riding boots, a white cassock with a large brown scapular, bearing a half white, half red cross extending from neck to hem with arms in the shape of fleurs-de-lys. The order, recognized in 2001 by the Pope, lives by a military as well as a religious discipline.
The head of Ecuador’s Bishops’ Conference, Antonio Arregui, responded to the president’s words, indicating it would be a totally unheard-of precedent, in this day and age, for the state to interfere with the appointment of bishops.
Arregui, the archbishop of Guayaquil, said the Modus Vivendi expressly recognized that the appointment of bishops is the Pope’s prerogative.
In what was seen as a conciliatory move, the Vatican announced on Mar. 19 the appointment of the Ecuadorian bishop of Guaranda, Ángel Polibio Sánchez, as apostolic delegate in Sucumbíos, to represent the Vatican in legal matters and government relations.
“We are pleased by this development, but we would like to see the precise scope of this appointment,” said the interim Foreign Minister, Kintto Lucas.
He was well advised to be cautious, as it was later clarified that Ibarguren Schindler would not be withdrawn from his apostolic administrator position, and Sánchez’s appointment merely sought to place an Ecuadorian as representative to the Justice Ministry, which also deals with religion and has refused to formally register the appointment of Ibarguren Schindler.