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.

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.

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.

Nobody's Slaves

The Vatican's censure of the El Salvadorian liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, for whom Kräutler has great respect, outraged many in the clergy. "European theologians seem to have difficulty understanding just how much spiritual guidance Latin America needs," says Kräutler. Liberation theology, which urges Catholics to take a greater role in social and political activism, was pioneered in Brazil, most famously by the Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff. However its exponents have been sanctioned by the Vatican, which views the movement as unorthodox.

For Kräutler, his faith is a "fight for life." He hasn't abandoned the liturgy, but he does advocate a shift in consciousness. "You must make yourselves heard," he preaches to the faithful at a community center in Bethânia, eight kilometers from Altamira, where about 30 young women and men listen to the bishop speak.

Kräutler wears sneakers and a polo shirt. He has a bouncy walk, and his Austrian accent softens his deep voice. "You are the sons of God and no one's slaves," he tells his audience.

The two bodyguards are in the next room, cleaning their guns. After the sermon they climb onto the back of Kräutler's Mitsubishi truck. A fast driver, the bishop tears along the jungle roads. Potential pursuers would have to struggle to keep up.

This Austrian bishop presides over Brazil's largest -- and most dangerous -- diocese. Located along the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, it is slightly larger than Germany but has only 400,000 inhabitants. The diocese includes rainforests, cattle ranches, reservations for indigenous peoples and the legendary Trans-Amazonian highway, the only road running east to west through the Amazon region. The unpaved road bisects Kräutler's diocese like a gaping red wound. It also serves as the front line in a dirty war that has transformed this remote region into Brazil's Wild West.

The jungle road was built by the military government which ruled in the 1970s. Its slogan was: "Land without people for people without land." The prospect of free land attracted tens of thousands of settlers from the country's poverty-stricken northeast. When construction on the road began, then President Emílio Garrastazu Médici felled a 50-meter Brazil Nut tree, and the government erected a grandiose monument. According to Kräutler, "it was fraud at the highest levels of government."

Today the monument, on the outskirts of Altamira, is in disrepair. The Trans-Amazonian highway was never paved -- cars and trucks often sink in giant mud holes during the rainy season, and the road is frequently closed.

The poor and day laborers live along the side of the road in makeshift huts made of pieces of wood and plastic sheets. Skeletal cows graze between the charred trunks of Brazil Nut trees. The soil is unsuitable for farming because the region's heavy rains quickly wash away the thin layer of topsoil.

Murdered for Standing Up for Their Rights

Cattle ranchers and logging companies have essentially divided up the land along the highway. Most conflicts in the Amazon region stem from disputes over illegally delineated properties. Landless farmers occupy property that cattle ranchers claim for themselves, and even the land reform authority settles the needy on the disputed properties. The ranchers, for their part, hire contract killers to drive away the squatters.

At least 772 small farmers, missionaries and human rights activists have been murdered in the region since 1971, but convictions were handed down in only three cases. The police are corrupt and poorly armed, and many are on the cattle ranchers' payrolls. Those who feel threatened don't go to the police. Instead, they come to Dom Erwin.

The bishop sounded the alarm when bandits shot and killed a farm laborer in his diocese. The man had sued a farmer who had withheld his wages for months. When Dom Erwin heard about slave labor in São Félix do Xingu, a city 400 kilometers (249 miles) south of Altamira, he notified the Brazilian federal government.

Kräutler made himself especially unpopular last year when he exposed a group of influential citizens who were sexually exploiting underage girls. They were intercepting 13- and 14-year-old girls as they walked home from school on Fridays, promising them mobile phones and small gifts in return for the girls spending the weekend with them on their farms. The girls' mothers appealed to the bishop, who wrote a letter to the justice minister. The suspects were arrested, and Dom Erwin received his first death threat, via e-mail, a short time later.

Kräutler has been living in Altamira for more than 40 years. His uncle, Eurico Kräutler, came to the Amazon region to work as a missionary in the 1930s. The young Kräutler was fascinated by the descriptions of life in the jungle in the letters his uncle sent home to Austria.

He joined the Society of Precious Blood, an order of missionaries, and arrived in Altamira in 1965. He explored his giant diocese by boat, usually sleeping in hammocks as the locals did. The villagers were thrilled -- Kräutler was the first clergyman to ever visit them. "The padres had stayed at home before then," says Kräutler. "The faithful had to travel to attend church services." During his journeys through the jungle, he founded more than 800 new parishes. Kräutler was appointed bishop in 1980.

Combative by nature, Kräutler acquired instant notoriety in 1983 when he took part in a protest march staged by workers at a sugarcane processing plant. The men had not been paid their wages for months. When Kräutler and the protestors blocked the Trans-Amazonian highway, the police cleared the road and arrested the bishop. "People were impressed," he recalls. "They had never seen a bishop in police custody before."

From then on, Kräutler delivered his sermons to packed churches. He encouraged the faithful to stop taking things lying down. In the Amazon region, where slave labor and feudal conditions are common, this was practically an incitement to revolution. As chairman of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), the bishop also campaigned to have the rights of the indigenous people set forth in the 1988 Brazilian constitution.

'When I Came to Altamira, This Was a Paradise'

That effort also had its consequences. Before the controversial law was ratified, a truck slammed into Kräutler's Volkswagen, killing his passenger, an Italian priest, on the spot. The bishop's jaw was crushed and he almost lost an eye when his head slammed into the steering wheel. After the accident, an unknown man gained entry to the hospital where Kräutler was being treated. He threw back the blanket covering the body of the Italian priest, and coolly said: "We got the wrong man."

The bishop's current enemies are easily recognized. They sport colorful stickers that read "Belo Monte Belongs to Us" on their SUVs. Belo Monte is the name of a dam the government plans to build on the Xingu River. The resulting reservoir would flood thousands of hectares of jungle and could extend to the outskirts of Altamira.

Environmental activists, indigenous people and small farmers are vehemently opposed to the giant project, and Kräutler heads the protest movement. His opponents, who accuse him of inciting unrest within the population, have recently been bold enough to issue a public call for his murder.

But the clergyman refuses to be intimidated. "When I came to Altamira, this was a paradise," he says. "I will not simply sit here and do nothing as it disappears under water."

Kräutler has eight years left until retirement, and he plans to use the time to prevent Belo Monte from being built. And then? "Hardly any priests come here from Austria anymore," says Kräutler. The Church in the Amazon region suffers from a dearth of new blood. Locals prefer more comfortable positions. Kräutler has 26 priests for his 800 parishes, but he says that he needs ten times as many.

"Nowadays all the church cares about is that young priests are trained to sing nicely," complains Father Amara de Souza, 40, a colleague of the murdered nun Dorothy Stang. De Souza is continuing Stang's work in Anapu. He drives her white VW Beetle, which he has named Doroteia -- the Portuguese form of Dorothy -- to visit the villages of the landless in the jungle.

Father Amaro, who has also received death threats, has acquired two large guard dogs for his protection. But he is more concerned about a change in the Church's direction, fearing that a conservative bishop could replace Kräutler. "Who will support me when Dom Erwin retires?" he asks.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren