Thu, 04 Mar 1999

Pinochet and the Church

To mark World Peace Day on Jan. 1 this year, Pope John Paul II issued a statement in defense of human rights. These words appear to make inexplicable the news that the Vatican wrote to the British Foreign Office late last year, urging it to block former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet's extradition to Spain to stand trial on human rights abuses. Instead, the Vatican argued, he should simply be allowed to go home.

These connections expose a questionable side of the Chilean Church's role during the dictatorship. But there was another side, too. The church was the only significant institution allowed to function outside the military's control after 1973. It used its independence to defend the persecuted and speak out on their behalf.

The Chilean Church, in other words, was as divided as Chilean society. Evidently, the Vatican feels that both church and society are still divided in Chile and that to put Pinochet on trial risks tearing the country apart again. Maybe so. But many Chileans are now among those who believe greater harm would be done if Pinochet is allowed to go free. On Jan. 1, the Pope appeared to have joined them.

-- The Sydney Morning Herald