Defending the Powerless in Brazil Bishop to Plead With Benedict XVI to Help Amazon Poor

Austrian bishop Erwin Kräutler is in charge of South America's largest and most dangerous diocese. The follower of liberation theology, who will meet with Pope Benedict XVI during his Brazil visit, speaks up for the rights of the poor in the Amazon region -- and has received death threats as a result.

By in Rio de Janeiro

Erwin Kräutler leads an Easter procession in Altamira. The bishop is always escorted by bodyguards after receiving death threats.
Thomas J. Müller

Erwin Kräutler leads an Easter procession in Altamira. The bishop is always escorted by bodyguards after receiving death threats.

When Erwin Kräutler reads the mass in the cathedral, two men are always sitting in the congregation. They are the same two men who sit in a nearby room after the service, when Kräutler delivers a lecture to elementary school teachers on the subject of forgiveness. And they also jog along next to him when the bishop, wearing a tracksuit, goes for his morning walk through Altamira, seat of the territorial prelature of Xingu in the Amazon.

The men wear their shirts over their trousers to conceal the handguns in their belts. They are police officers, and their job is to protect the bishop.

Kräutler is a tall, athletic man. Today, like every morning, he walks the five kilometers from his residence next to the cathedral to the police station at the other end of the town. It is still dark, but the heat of the coming day can already be felt in the air. His bodyguards have trouble keeping up with the bishop's brisk stride.

"I would prefer to send them home," he says, "but the police chief insists on the escort." The authorities want to make sure that no one can accuse them of failing to protect the clergyman, who recently received an anonymous death threat on the Internet.

Kräutler has received other death threats, but rarely are they this direct. In most cases his enemies send their warnings through third parties. During a procession, for example, a stranger might whisper into the ear of one of the bishop's friends that it would be better for Dom Erwin -- as the bishop is known locally -- to leave Altamira. Or someone might call his office to say: "The bishop must be eliminated."

On one occasion someone left a handful of .38 caliber bullets in a pew. It was an unmistakable warning. Kräutler, a native Austrian from the town of Koblach in the Vorarlberg region, is at the very top of the death list of Altamira's professional hitmen, known as pistoleiros.

Ten members of the clergy, all of whom are involved in fighting corruption and slave labor, have received similar threats in the Amazon region. The murder of the American nun Dorothy Stang two years ago was proof that the warnings should be taken seriously.

Contract killers murdered the 73-year-old nun, who campaigned on behalf of landless peasants in Anapu near Altamira, ambushing her while she was walking through the forest. She read the men a few verses from the Bible before they shot their victim in the back of the head. Cattle ranchers are believed to be behind the killing, and one of them is now being brought to trial. Kräutler read the sermon at Stang's funeral.

Altamira is located in Brazil's largely lawless Amazon region.

Altamira is located in Brazil's largely lawless Amazon region.

The bishop now plans to take his cause to the very top of the Catholic hierarchy. Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives in Brazil Wednesday for a five-day visit -- his first trip to Latin America -- plans to meet with Kräutler and other Brazilian bishops at São Paulo cathedral. The Amazon region is the topic that the Brazilian conference of bishops has selected this year for its "Campaign of Brotherhood." Kräutler was the driving force behind the decision.

Kräutler knows Benedict XVI -- then plain Joseph Ratzinger -- from the time when he was a student in Bavaria. "We have an interesting and good relationship," says Kräutler, perhaps a touch defensively. The German Pope is controversial in Brazil, where many see him as cold, conservative and unreceptive to the problems of the Third World.


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