In Venezuela, crime lurks on the streets, sidewalks, houses and now even in churches. Priests, who are supposed to be representatives of peace, have become the enemies of criminals.
by Pablo Hernández
At 1 a.m. on January 15, two people entered the San Martín de Porres Church in Caricuao, southwest of the capital Caracas. Once inside, they carried out the third robbery the church has experienced in the past three months. This time, Marco Robayo, the church’s 80-year-old priest, saw the culprits and rang the bells to warn the community about what was happening.
After a few minutes, the pastor, thinking that the robbers had fled when they heard the bells, went to have a look in his church. One of the robbers saw him and hit him on the head with a blunt object various times. The semi-conscious priest felt how they robbed his watch and fled the building.
More recently, in the early hours of February 18, another priest, José Mendoza Vásquez, of the San Juan Evangelista Church in Barquisimeto in the west of the country, was shot in the head and killed by thieves trying to steal his car. The crime caused an outpouring of grief similar to the one felt by the neighbours of Father Esteban Wood, killed two years ago in Puerto Ordaz in eastern Venezuela.
Violeta Fernández, one of Father Mendoza’s neighbours, says “the priest was much loved by the community”. She thinks “the loss of values, lack of convictions and slow judicial process mean that impunity” has become mundane.
War against priests
Father Rafael Garrido, the national director of the Huellas Youth Movement in Venezuela, mentions two factors contributing to this surge in violence against priests. The first is that clerics are an easy target. The second is that, by their very nature, they are enemies of violence.
“In the church, you’ll always find people who are in favour of peace and coexistence. These people pose a clear threat to those who resort to violence because they want to form good citizens and Christians”, says Garrido. “That’s why they’re targeted by anti-social elements.”`
Religious institutions are subject to the same evils as the rest of society, adds the priest. “Our neighbourhoods and poor communities are suffering high-levels of violence, both in real numbers and in the seriousness of the crimes. Priests are trying to help alleviate the suffering, but we too are becoming victims.”
Parishioners organising themselves
In some churches, parishioners have organised themselves and hired private security companies. Their main task is to guard the vehicles people park outside churches when they attend mass.
Nevertheless, the huge rise in violence may lead to the adoption of additional measures. A clear example would be to search people when they enter churches. Such a step is not as unlikely as it seems. Venezuelans are already searched when they enter some schools, shopping centres, restaurants, discos and other public areas.
Father Garrido thinks it would be “very sad” if this were to happen in churches. To a certain extent, it would amount to “closing” churches. For him, the solution to the excessive violence isn’t for Venezuelans to isolate themselves but to educate people and make social investments.
Opinions in Venezuela are divided about the best way to counter the violence in our midst, but with every passing day, more and more families are mourning the sad and horrible reality that it is now also affecting the men of God.