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
News
Disruption at Waterloo after a person was hit by a train
newsCancellations and disrupted service after person hit by train
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The almost deserted Liverpool Echo Arena on Monday
tvCan X Factor last in the face of plummeting numbers auditioning
News
Kirsty Bertarelli is launching a singing career with an album of songs detailing her observations of “real life”
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence