The diaspora began in the early 1970s with selective expulsions and killings. As the violence mounted, the victims numbered in the hundreds, then the thousands, until Central America became an enormous refugee camp, its borders marked by mass graves, like the Sumpul River on the Salvadoran-Honduran frontier, where more than 600 men, women, and children were slaughtered last May.
Among the dispersed or murdered were many members of the Central American Catholic Church, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down while saying Mass in a San Salvador chapel in March of this year. Since then, three more priests have been killed in El Salvador, bringing the total to nine in the past three years. Hundreds of lay leaders have suffered the same fate.
In neighboring Guatemala, military persecution is dismembering the church. Five priests have been killed in the last two years. The bishop of Quiche diocese and president of the Guatemalan Episcopal Conference, Juan Gerardi, was forced to abandon the area after he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Twenty-five Sacred Heart missionaries from Spain, as well as a group of Dominican nuns, also left Quiche in August because of military persecution, including the bombing of convents. The exodus recalled events in Olancho, Honduras, in 1975, when nine people, including two priests, were killed and the local bishop and all his clergy expelled from the region. Five years later a new wave of violence threatens the Honduran church.