Bishop Jorge Novak

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The Independent Online

Jorge Novak, priest: born San Miguel Arcángel, Argentina 29 January 1928; ordained priest 1954; Bishop of Quilmes 1976-2001; died Quilmes, Argentina 9 July 2001.

Argentina's dark history of the Seventies will have to include Jorge Novak, the Bishop of Quilmes, as a brave and tireless fighter against terror and murder. In a country torn by violence, he courageously criticised the military and the guerrillas for their outrages.

It was not an easy time to be brave. On 4 July 1976, just over three months after the March military coup, paramilitary operators murdered three priests and two students of the Irish Palotine order, and the following month the Bishop of La Rioja was killed by agents of the dictatorship.

Novak became a priest at 26, and was elevated to bishop in that murderous August. There were only two other bishops in Argentina, Monsignor Jaime de Nevares, of Neuquen, and Justo Laguna, of Morón, whose voices were heard. The three were responsible for upholding the principles of charity and succour in a Roman Catholic church whose hierarchy was toadying to the military regime.

Because his parish was close to Buenos Aires, with Laguna under constant pressure from the military, and de Nevares residing in Patagonia, Novak was the inevitable source sought by journalists during and after the Falklands war in 1982, as the real horror of the "disappearances" of up to 30,000 people began to be known. Novak kept that position as spokesman for the next of kin right into the return of constitutional rule in 1983 and the trials of the military in 1985.

He was a founder of the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights. His book about the group's work, Esto no es marxismo, es Evangelio ("This is Not Marxism, This is God's Message"), was published last year. While he never abandoned human rights in political issues, he did switch his attention in the Eighties to the weakest and most vulnerable in Argentine society. He kept that outspoken leadership right to the end.

With the official unemployment rate at 16 per cent (and the underemployed at a much higher proportion), Novak's letters to the government demanding action for the poor were written in such strong language that they rattled the political establishment and the church leaders. He would be seen leading demonstrations for jobs and organising soup kitchens in the shanties surrounding urban centres. Last year he encouraged one of his priests and a prominent social worker, Father Luis Farinello, to form a party and run for a Senate seat in next October's congressional elections.

Jorge Novak had been visiting parishioners and contacting political figures until only a few days before surgery for stomach cancer, which he had kept a close secret.

Andrew Graham-Yooll

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