by Aglaé de Chalus, Rio de Janeiro
April 12, 2018
La Croix International
From the time of his arrival in Brazil in 1978, Brother Henri legally defended small farmers expelled from their lands and threatened by the powerful fazendeiros or large landowners in the Amazon region.
His ashes will now be handed over on April 14 to a camp community of 150 families of landless farmers. The community, which is named after him, is located at Curionopolis in Para, one of the largest states of Amazonia, where Brother Henri lived and worked for more than 35 years.
“We are organizing a simple, people-oriented ceremony,” said Dominican Brother Xavier Plassat, who coordinates the Land Pastoral Commission campaign against slave labor, Brother Henri’s other great battle.
Brother Xavier brought the ashes back with him from Paris, where Brother Henri had lived since 2015 and where he died aged 87 on Nov. 26, 2017.
The ecumenical celebration will be followed by a “political event” since conflicts and tensions are continuing to grow in Amazonia, Brother Xavier said.
The work of Brother Henri’s religious community, who like him have committed themselves to the struggles of the poorest people in Amazonia, has become increasingly difficult.
On March 27, the Catholic community in the region was shocked by the arrest of Father José Amaro Lopes de Souza, parish priest at Anapu in the Para and a member of the Land Pastoral Commission, on charges of criminal association, threats, extortion, pillage, money laundering and sexual aggression.
Father Amaro, who has received a succession of death threats since 2005, worked closely for several years with Dorothy Stang, the American missionary assassinated in 2005 by the fazendeiros.
“When Dorothy Stang started to support the farmers’ struggle, the fazendeiros decided to kill her,” the Land Pastoral Commission noted in a statement dismantling the evidence and testimony against the priest.
“All the indications now are that they have decided to change their strategy regarding Father Amaro,” the statement said.
“Instead of assassinating him, they have discovered a new way to demoralize Father Amaro by attacking his image and turning him into a criminal,” the Land Pastoral Commission said in the statement.
“The accusation makes no sense,” added Brother Xavier Plassat.
“A dozen fazendeiros got together and manipulated a couple of former landless farmers, who had to leave their camp for poor conduct and who seem to want to take revenge,” he said. “The whole thing is a farce.”
“Father Amaro has become the victim of defamation to delegitimize his work on behalf of the weakest,” said Bishop João Muniz Alves of Xingu, who heads the diocese where Anapu is located, and Retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Xingu in a letter.
The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, the French Catholic development agency, CCFD Terre Solidaire, several dioceses and pastoral centers in the region as well as many local social movements also condemned the arrest.
“There is a generalized climate of hatred of the people’s movements and those who support them,” said Brother Xavier Plassat.
This climate has worsened since the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, he said.
“There is a spirit of revenge on the side of these powerful groups, a desire to wipe out the victories of the 15 years of popular government,” he said.
“The church is caught up in this acrimony, even though the priests of Amazonia are far from all involved,” he added.
In 2007, three bishops from Amazonia, including Bishop Kräutler, were included in a list of ten religious to be eliminated.
Brother Henri was also on the list after having a price placed on his head during the year 2000.
For the next 15 years, he lived with two bodyguards.
In 2016, sixty-one people were killed in land conflicts in Brazil, according to the Land Pastoral Commission, 79 percent of which occurred in Amazonia.