Reportedly, when Thomas Beckett, a “born again” Christian, turned against his former friend Henry II to defend the rights of the church from a state takeover, Henry was heard to say the above phrase, and promptly several of his henchmen went out and killed the meddlesome bishop.

Nothing new there.

One of the dangerous things about priests and other good clergymen is that they write. So we know of the atrocities of the Spanish conquistadors against Mexican Indians because Father de las Casas reported them.

So when Father Samar was killed on the way back from a wedding in Samar, everyone points the finger at “extrajudicial killing” as the reason for his death. As the bishop pointed out, he was involved with human rights cases in his area, an area with a lot of political violence. It may take years for a case to be made, if it ever is.

Yet Father Samar is not the only clergyman killed for his opposition to those who exploit the poor. Bishop Ramento, of the Philippine Independent church, was also killed in 2006 for his strong defense of human rights.

Yet not all the killings are left versus right. About the same time as the third (!) Italian missionary priest was kidnapped last year, Father Roda, a local priest, was killed in a similar kidnapping by the Abu. Unlike the passive Italian priests, knowing that they won’t be killed because their country pays large ransoms, Father Roda knew that if his family paid ransom, that the ransom money would be used to kill his people. So he resisted the thugs, so they killed him.

So was he a martyr to human rights? (He worked with Muslim groups to defuse religious tensions in his area.) Or was he a martyr for being a Catholic priest? Or was he just another “business as usual” kidnap victim, like the many businessmen who are kidnapped for money every day, except that these kidnappers were using money for Muslim “insurgents” instead of to fund “communist freedom fighters” or for personal gain?

Outsiders who nicely fit things into a “leftist good government bad” box tend to overlook the complexity of revolution, where criminals use revolution as an excuse for their greed, and where revolutionaries feel crime is not evil since it benefits the cause.

Similarly, revenge killing of those suspected of “criminal activity” is justified by some police and military against thugs whose political murders will go unavenged because of amnesties and lack of evidence, but this overlooks that some of these “extra judicial killings” are against those doing things like union organizing for a living wage, or whistle-blowing on bribes and kickbacks: things that would be legal in a just society.

This confusion gets even more complicated when drug gangs are part of the corruption, as  in Afghanistan, Mexico, and Colombia.

In Colombia, a report shows that

According to the Archbishop Ruben Salazar, two bishops, 67 priests, 8 monks and nuns and three seminarians were killed in Colombia between 1984 and June 2009….

Again, this is not “left versus right”: both sides have militants with blood on their hands.

So in the past, if a lot of those killed were due to their anti (corrupt) government stance, so too are many killed for being against drug gangs. Notice that this UN report  on civilian attacks by FARC and drug gangs contains testimony from several priests. And notice that this report on the Awa massacres in southern Colombia comes from a missionary news service.

When I was a missionary in Africa, usually we knew details behind various massacres, and sometimes our details didn’t match the news put out by the government or even the BBC.

Some of my colleagues were arrested and deported for treating wounded insurgents. At least one priest who “disappeared” was known to have been killed by the government after witnessing a massacre. Others were shot by robbers who were also “insurgents”: because giving guns and a “license to kill” to teen agers leads to some of the worst atrocities in that sad continent.

As Bishop Salazar noted:

The priests are not only witnesses of the violence in remote regions but also the hope and sometimes the only authority for many villages, Salazar said.

In other words, they are a trusted witness in areas where reporters are absent or forbidden, a neutral observer in areas where ideological bias often distorts facts, who are willing to risk their lives to testify against those who harm the helpless, and an independent voice against those who justify killing for “higher” reasons, be it ideology, religious fanaticism, criminal activity, or because the rich want to stay in power and get rid of the troublemakers.

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Addendum: Does this Cuban story fit into the essay? 

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about human rights in Zimbabwe at MakaipaBlog.

She has family living in southern Colombia.

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