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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Belong: Volunteer Mentor for Offenders

This is a volunteer role with paid expenses : Belong: Seeking volunteers who c...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Apprentice Telesales & Marketing Opportunities

£10400 - £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests