Central America may be a health hazard for the Pope

PHIL DAVISON

Latin America Correspondent

If Pope John Paul wanted to test his health after the illness that curtailed his Christmas Day greeting, he could hardly have chosen a more challenging itinerary. He is due in Guatemala City today at the start of a visit that also will take him to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Venezuela by next weekend.

The last time he visited Guatemala, in 1983, General Efrain Rios Montt, then the military ruler, "welcomed" him by executing six suspected leftists for whom John Paul had asked clemency. In Nicaragua during the same trip, the ruling Sandinistas heckled the Pope and interrupted a speech.

Now, tension is high in Nicaragua after the bombings of 18 Catholic churches, an attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate and last week's brief but dramatic occupation by armed students of the Foreign Ministry in Managua, site of the press centre for the papal visit.

In El Salvador, the Pope is under attack for appointing the conservative Fernando Saenz Lacalle, a member of the Opus Dei movement, as Archbishop last year. That ended a tradition of liberation theologists, including Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered by a right-wing death squad in 1980.

Progressive Catholics are angered that John Paul will not visit the graves of six Jesuit priests murdered by soldiers in 1989.

In case all that is not enough to give the Pope a headache, a riot broke out on Saturday in a prison he is due to bless in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.The riot left him with one fewer inmate to bless.

The Pope will base himself in Guatemala until Friday, making day trips to Nicaragua on Wednesday and to El Salvador on Thursday, before spending the weekend in Venezuela.

On his 69th trip as Pope, and his first since his Christmas bout with flu and food poisoning, John Paul hopes to seal peace and reconciliation in Central America, wracked by civil wars - in which half a million people died - the last time he visited. But a key underlying mission, according to priests in the region, is to try to stem an evangelical Protestant upsurge threatening his Church from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.

In Guatemala, 100 per cent Catholic a generation ago, up to 30 per cent of the 10 million population are now thought to be members of evangelical churches or sects, often backed by US funds and bolstered by jazzy US- style TV services.

While Guatemala is the only Central American nation still faced with a guerrilla war, the leftist guerrillas have pledged a ceasefire during the Pope's visit "as a gesture of respect''.

It is in Nicaragua where fears for his safety are greatest. While President Violeta Chamorro, who defeated the Sandinistas in a surprise landslide election victory in 1990, is a devout Catholic, Nicaraguans recall the dramatic 1983 incidents in which the Sandinistas sought to embarrass the Pope - probably the first and only time a host government has done so.

Many Nicaraguans believe the Sandinistas, who will seek to regain power next November, possibly with former President Daniel Ortega as their candidate, were behind the 18 church bombings over the last nine months, most recently last Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. No one was injured.

Some of the students who occupied the Foreign Ministry last week, disrupting the accreditation process for the Pope's visit, were wearing the red-and- black bandannas of the Sandinistas as police evicted them.

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