A special report for Tim's El Salvador Blog
Despite an undeniable waning trend since the latter part of the twentieth century, which tracks similar trends throughout the west, religion remains a potent force in El Salvador and the strength of the church(es) was on full display in 2012, and is evident in the top religious stories out of El Salvador for the year.
1. The Gang Truce
Even if you ignore that the Roman Catholic Church was at the center of the mediations and that other Churches have provided support for the process, it is difficult to overlook the spiritual or at least moral dimensions of this story. It starts with a great moral wrong, a morass in the heart of Salvadoran society, it is followed by an apparent redemption or conversion, and leaves the country with a great raging debate: whether to accept what some regard as a Faustian bargain. Do you negotiate with killers? Do you let gang members get out of jail free? Do you offer them a job? Do you offer them amnesty (which was the way El Salvador settled the last problem of this magnitude)?
2. The Destruction of the Llort Mural
On New Year's Eve of last year, demolition crews were observed chiseling off the tile facade of the San Salvador Metropolitan Cathedral by the most famous Salvadoran artist, Fernando Llort. Confusion and outrage followed. The decision had not been announced, let alone consulted, with the public, the authorities, the artist, or anyone. The explanations given were contradictory: the tiles were a bad match for a new artwork that was going to be installed; no, they were falling off and threatening passersby; no, they contained masonic symbols that were objectionable to the faith. The culture ministry began a legal process against the archdiocese for destroying a national treasure, but the action was quietly dropped after Pres. Funes reportedly gave the order to let it go.
3. Pres. Funes Asks Forgiveness for «El Mozote»
The killing of up to 1,000 peasants in remote, Northeastern El Salvador in Dec. 1981 by the Salvadoran army certainly ranks as one of the most despicable human rights abuses carried out in the Americas during the second half of the 20th Century. When Pres. Funes chose to apologize for the massacre as head of state to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the Salvadoran Civil War, it was very hard to find fault with his action. Yet some could not help themselves. Funes has repeatedly apologized for violations committed by the Right, opponents complained, but he has never acknowledged abuses by the Left. Is it reconciliation if you only highlight the other side's transgressions?
4. Traditional Marriage Amendment Fails
Despite a pitched campaign by the Church, a proposed constitutional amendment to limit marriages in El Salvador to those between a "naturally born" woman and man failed to pass in the legislature. But rather than to let it die, the legislators worked out a compromise whereby they tabled the legislation with the option to bring it back if they gather enough votes to pass it. Traditionally, it has been fairly easy to legislate morality in El Salvador, but this time the influence of progressive human rights groups was able to hold back this push.
5. The Churches' Role in Constitutional Crisis
Even though the showdown between the Constitutional Court and the other two branches of government looked easy to score from the outside, with most outside groups smacking down the Legislative Assembly for their attempt to circumvent the interpretative functions of the judiciary, the internal politics and cultural dynamics of the standoff were more complicated. In this respect, the mainline churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, played a constructive role, tempering the dialogue but firmly urging the political actors to respect the country's burgeoning democratic institutions.
6. Parity of the Evangelicals
This year, the Salvadoran Evangelical Alliance made a strategic decision to go toe to toe with the Catholic Church on providing public commentary to national events, with dueling Sunday press conferences to tackle the issues, including the aforementioned constitutional crisis. This marks a departure from traditional roles, wherein the Evangelicals have criticized the Catholic Church for meddling in politics. The Evangelicals have even sought to make inroads with the FMLN, with the National Union of Salvadoran Christian Churches even holding a prayer meeting with the FMLN presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
7. Celebration of the Baktún in El Salvador
Okay, the Mayan Apocalypse hype was hokey and an attempt to drum up interest in tourism by appealing to the phenomenom would ordinarily be dismissed as shameless jumping on the bandwagon. But tourism minister José Napoleón Duarte seems genuine in his bid to revive attention to indigenous culture as a centerpiece of his ministry's efforts. There is a sober backstory to his efforts, with the infamous peasant massacre of 1932 believed to have killed as many as 30,000 indigenous rebels, and widely blamed for driving indigenous culture underground in El Salvador. In addition to holding a Dec. 21 Baktún telecast from a Mayan pyramid, Duarte inaugurated a "Mayan Route" tourism ring and attempted to redeem El Salvador's indigenous heritage, highlighting Mayan beliefs and culture.
8. Umptieth Occupation of the Metropolitan Cathedral
The first occupation of the San Salvador Cathedral following a student massacre in 1975 was a seminal development in the consolidation of a unified, conscientious opposition movement to challenge military rule in El Salvador. Throughout the Civil War and ever since, occupations of the country's major Catholic temple have been endless, but the prolonged siege by ex combatants that threatened the celebration of Easter and the Romero anniversary, among other staples of Salvadoran religious lives, seemed oddly anachronistic. There seemed to be outward hostility toward the occupiers, and the Church itself received little sympathy, in part due to hierarchy's role in destroying the Cathedral's mural. It was not a very good year for the embattled cement goliath in downtown San Salvador.
9. Brother Toby's Stroke
The head pastor of the Friends of Israel Biblical Tabernacle, Edgar López Bertrand, better known as "Brother Toby," suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in October and was hospitalized on an emergency basis, raising fears that Salvadorans might be seeing the end of an era. For the past decade, Brother Toby arguably has been the most prominent religious figure in El Salvador--rivaling the Archbishop of San Salvador in terms of a cult following (some would say a cult of personality). Legal troubles forced Brother Toby to withdraw somewhat, but his son has emerged as a viable successor to the mantle, and he has even admitted political ambitions.
10. Archbishop Romero Gets a Boulevard
Even though his canonization path seems to be blocked indefinitely, El Salvador's martyr bishop was honored by the center-left Funes Administration when the government announced in late November that a massive construction project adding a modern freeway artery to northwestern San Salvador would be re-christened as the Monsignor Romero Boulevard. Public Works minister Gerson Martínez said that Romero embodies the values that the government wishes to highlight, including transparency and public service. The administration reportedly found that Romero brings international credibility to the government and it also promoted tourism projects to rebrand El Salvador's image abroad.
Religion continues to play a vital role in El Salvador's public life. While its influence is retreating, it does so very slowly and, even within that retreat, there are some religious forces ascendant--including the role of Evangelicals and others (the Mormons completed a major temple a couple of years back). Additionally, the larger profile of Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas and the gang truce negotiating Bishop Fabio Colindres seem to signal a rennaissance for the Catholic Church, too. Therefore, we will continue to watch religion's role in Salvadoran politics and culture for the coming year.