Madeira's rebel priests choose politics to beat inequality

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The Independent Online
Funchal-A socialist, two communists and three left-wing priests have galvanised the campaign for Sunday's regional elections in the Portuguese island of Madeira, a fiefdom of the conservative Social Democratic Party since the Carnation Revolution of 1974.

The revolutionary priests have decided to combat what they call "the inequalities and abuses" perpetrated by the regional president, Alberto Joao Jardim, during 18 years in power in "clear concubinage with the church hierarchy" on the island, which is 1,000km south-west of Lisbon.

The candidacies have prompted confrontation among the island's parish priests and aroused the fury of the Bishop of Funchal, Teodoro de Faria, who has warned that "conscious Christians must not vote for them". The rebel priests, however, are aiming to erode an absolute majority that they believe has caused enormous injustice.

Their strategy is to inform people of the serious problems: unemployment, illiteracy and rural poverty. The first "black sheep in God's fold" - to use the Bishop's expression - is Fr Edgar Silva, 33, who heads the regional assembly list for the CDU Communist coalition. An advocate of "liberation theology" and founder of an international Catholic aid movement for street children, Fr Silva fights against what he calls the democratura.

"An expression my friends in South America use," he said, "for an apparently democratic structure to conceal discrimination and intolerance that indicate totalitarian tendencies". Even a small electoral advance on the one deputy they now have would make a difference, he believes. "Three CDU deputies would do more to defend the people than 50 of the PSD," he said.

But Fr Silva admits that the church hierarchy's opposition would discourage many. "The people are frightened of us because the PSD and church leaders have succeeded in stigmatising the left; there is a dangerous discourse that associates the left, particularly communism, with Satan." Fr Silva believes it is easy to explain why the political opposition is led by priests: "It is part of the history of Madeira. The blood coursing through our veins is that of slaves ... sugarcane slaves, outlaws, deportees and prisoners. We had a feudal land structure. This prompted rebellion against those who enriched themselves at the slaves' expense. Some acts of rebellion were led by priests."

Fr Mario Tavares, a former parish priest and now the CDU's only deputy, is number two on the list after Fr Silva. "For the past 20 years," he said, "the church leadership has been servile to the regional government in return for continuous subsidies." Last year the Church of Madeira received the equivalent of pounds 1.5m in subsidies from the regional government, he said.

The socialist candidate, Fr Martins Junior, wants more autonomy for the island. "At the moment our autonomy begins and ends in the Quinta Vigia [regional presidential palace]. Our people are marginalised and our local power is stifled."