Sunday afternoon, March 28, 1982. If you were an evangelical Christian living in Guatemala, watching TV, your heart would have been beating faster and tears of joy may have flowed down your cheeks.
A man was speaking so thoughtfully, with the Bible in hand. He was teaching the audience, “If there is no peace within the family, there would be no peace in the world. If we want peace, we need at first to be at peace in our hearts.” He went on, “Guatemala is the chosen people of the New Testament.”
That 55-year-old man was Guatemalan General Efrain Rios Montt, pastor of the Iglesia Verbo (Church of the Word), who had recently become president of Guatemala through a military coup.
On May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan court sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in prison after finding him responsible for deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule.
Even though Rios Montt was head of state for only 16 months, it was enough, according to humanitarian organizations, to literally unleash a river of blood in Guatemala. The dictator declared a “holy war,” an all-out-war against communism, delinquency, and political violence. It is said that 10,000 Guatemalans, the majority of which were indigenous, were victims of extrajudicial executions. Their bodies were buried in common graves or scattered in to the fields as if they were rubbish. The savage persecution pushed the indigenous population to seek refuge in Mexican camps. More than 100,000 people were displaced. The ethnic group Ixil was one of the most affected.
At the trial of Rios Montt, now 85 years old, some of the victims of those horrendous times in Guatemalan history, described in great detail how members of the military forces would arrive into their communities and kill, kidnap, and rape indiscriminately. According to the report for the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI in Spanish), sexual violence was present in one of every six cases of mass murder perpetrated by soldiers or paramilitary forces who called themselves “civil self-defense patrols.”
Rios Montt has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The dictator was the son of the “doctrine of national security” and “scorched earth policy.” His goal was to separate the “water” from the “fish.” By “water” he meant popular support and the “fish” were guerrillas and revolutionary forces.
To do this he inflicted reign of terror on the civil community. All of this took place with the consent of the United States government.
During those years, it was said, that Guatemala was experiencing a revival of evangelical Christianity. Twenty-one percent of the population stated they were evangelicals. Rios Montt counted Luis Palau, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson among his friends and supporters. Many U.S. Christian publications promoted his presidency. “It’s great to have a Christian president as a model,” Palau told Christianity Today in 1983. “The hand of God appears to be on him.”
It was not seen as odd in March 1982 when the soldiers leading the military coupé stormed into the Iglesia Verbo to ask General Rios Montt to assume the leadership of their new government. It wasn’t strange either that the dictator would benefit from the support of different social groups — including religious groups — as chaos and corruption had a stronghold over the Central American country. The idea of a “Christian president,” who would bring peace and justice to the nation, seemed finally to have become a reality.
In his televised “sermons” broadcast almost every Sunday, the dictator talked about morality, strengthening the family, and changing hearts to promote change in society. He spoke in apocalyptic terms — the fulfillment of the time for Guatemala, “the new chosen one.”
But it was an apocalypse endured by the small Maya group of the Ixil. Within his first month as president, the dictator simultaneously prepared his Sunday talks full of biblical images and ordered the killing of more than 3,000 people.
The court sentence handed down on Rios Montt is a lesson in the decency of the Guatemalan justice system. It’s also a lesson for those who define themselves as “God’s chosen ones.” The abuse of power, disguised in religion, is more than dangerous — it is an act of idolatry that sooner or later will be exposed. Christians should not be manipulated or driven to justify injustice, just because someone mentions God’s name or quotes Bible verses or proclaims to believe in God. We know already that old apostolic lesson: “Even the demons believe — and shudder!”
It would be good to take some lessons from this painful time in the history of Christianity in Guatemala and ask God for forgiveness and change our attitudes. We know that there are thousands of Christians in that country that condemn the way their churches, and their leaders in particular, allowed themselves to be manipulated by the politicians. Hopefully, Rios Montt himself will repent. He hasn’t done so yet.
Today, Guatemala celebrates the unleashing of a vigorous river of justice into the soul of the nation. As in the case of the Peruvian dictator Fujimori, it is the victims, the Maya indigenous, the excluded ones, who have brought one deemed beyond accountablility to sit in the guilty dock, so that in this life he can be held accountable for the abuses he perpetrated.
The name of the God has been upheld this week with this late, but needed, act of justice.
Alfonso Wieland, co-director of Paz y Esperanza International, lives in Lima, Peru.
Image: Photo from "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator," a film on how a 1983 documentary helped illucidate the dictator's genocide against the Mayan people. Photo from humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr.com.