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Ghetto priest rallies Jamaican poor

THEY CALL him the Ghetto Priest, something of a male version of Mother Teresa, most often seen tramping Kingston's slums in white robe, blue sash and sandals. The fact that he has written a number-one reggae single and dozens of musicals, and writes a newspaper column, gives him considerably more street cred than your average clergyman.

Now, Father Richard HoLung, a soft-spoken, white-haired 59-year-old Jamaican, is at the forefront of protests against sweeping tax and price rises. Nine people died in this week's demonstrations. It was the worst violence in Jamaica in 20 years and sent shivers around the economically struggling Caribbean.

Father HoLung, Jamaican-born but whose oriental features lead strangers to think he is a Buddhist priest, insists he wants to stay out of politics but he is already being compared by diplomats in the region to Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Catholic priest who swept to his nation's presidency at the start of the decade.

At an unprecedented protest meeting of Jamaican church leaders on Thursday, Father HoLung, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor group, launched a fiery attack on the government's tax and price increases and what he said was the abandonment of the poor in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. "There must be a full rollback of the price rises. I am talking right now," he told several hundred people from various religious dominations in Kingston's Liguanea park. "Now! Now! Now!" the crowd chanted as he held his microphone out towards them, pop singer-style.

"Don't you think they [government leaders] should maybe suffer with us? Don't you think they should take a cut in their wages?" he asked. "The Church is a sleeping giant. If the whole Church were to come together, we'd be 90 per cent of the country. We are not a violent people by nature. We don't want no burning of tyres or blocking of roads. What we want them to say is, `We were wrong. we made a mistake'."

On Thursday night Prime Minister P J Patterson called him to say he could not personally annul the tax rises announced a week ago and which led to rioting and clashes with police on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Fourteen policemen were injured, six police stations attacked, 152 people arrested, scores of shops looted and dozens of buildings set ablaze. Life was back to normal in most areas yesterday but residents retained roadblocks in several ghetto areas to keep police at bay.

Mr Patterson noted that a five-member "broad-based" crisis committee was reviewing the tax and price rises and would announce its findings tomorrow. The government would consider its report on Monday. In the meantime, the opposition Jamaican Labour Party leader, Edward Seaga, whose supporters were widely believed to have encouraged the riots, said protests would continue until the increases were dropped. He called an opposition march for tomorrow.

Father HoLung said the new inter-denominational church protest movement, Christian Unity for Peace and Justice, would keep up the pressure with a rally in Kingston on 1 May, described as a "day of national atonement".

A tour of four ghetto centres run by Father HoLung's young "brothers" showed the difficulty of their task. They look after several hundred mentally or physically disabled Jamaicans, as well as dying Aids patients, in areas of Kingston where this week's violence was worst, where roads are still blocked and where local gang leaders still rule.

If there was ever any doubt about the continuing danger, Brother Savio, a young Indian volunteer, recited a prayer in his car before we drove into the slums.

After negotiating several roadblocks by driving on pavements or through rubble, he was eventually stymied by a steel girder. Leaders of the local "National Crew" gang showed no sign of removing it so we walked to one of Father HoLung's shelters.

At Thursday's gathering, in front of a large wooden cross draped with a tangled Jamaican flag to symbolise the "distress" of the nation, other clergymen went even further than Father HoLung, stirring their audience into a frenzy with fiery speeches interspersed with hymns and songs including "We shall overcome". It was the first time Jamaica's leading denominations had held a joint gathering.

"We can take no more. We are standing up for nonsense no longer," said a Catholic priest, Father Gregory Ramkissoon. "The poor must come out of the trap of poverty. We must act."

Bishop Tommy Holdsworth of the Greater Grace Temple said: "The people are saying, `We are hungry. We can take no more'. There is a genuine cry from the people for help."

The Rev Wynton William, a Baptist minister, said: "Our young people are very disappointed with the leadership of this country. They say our leadership has failed us. It is a shame to see our country has been ruined."