Bishop Meets With Ousted President

Days after the deposed leader of Honduras returned to his country, church leaders met with both parties involved in the political standoff, and the country’s acting foreign minister said the Vatican might help mediate a solution to the crisis.

On Sept. 24 Auxiliary Bishop Juan Pineda Fasquelle of Tegucigalpa spoke with both Manuel Zelaya, the former president who returned to Honduras on Sept. 21, and Roberto Micheletti, who heads the de facto government that ousted Zelaya on June 28.

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After meeting with Zelaya on Sept. 21 at the Brazilian Embassy, where the former president has sought asylum, Bishop Pineda said he hoped the visit would be a “first step” toward dialogue. The overtures came after several days of protests in which at least one person was killed and others were injured or arrested.

Carlos López Contreras, the country’s acting foreign minister, announced on Sept. 24 that Micheletti was willing to begin talks with his opponents. When asked who might participate in the dialogue, López mentioned the Vatican. According to church sources, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa had spoken about the matter with Pope Benedict XVI earlier in the week.

Peace talks mediated by the church could restore the church’s credibility among the Honduran community. Observers say that a statement by the bishops in July that was widely seen as supporting the coup has damaged the church’s reputation. Retired Bishop Real Corriveau of Choluteca said the statement was misinterpreted and that the bishops found fault with both sides in the conflict. Unlike the Organization of American States and many governments, the bishops did not insist on Zelaya’s return to office.

Grassroots church workers, however, have been critical of the political takeover. Radio Progreso, a radio station sponsored by the Jesuits, was closed briefly after the coup in June, and its director, Ismael Moreno, S.J., received a death threat. At one point, police surrounded the station, but local people occupied the building to keep authorities from closing it. The station has been covering political protests organized by Zelaya’s supporters.

Moreno said Bishop Pineda’s visit to Zelaya was an “acknowledgment that during these nearly three months, the church hierarchy has not taken a well-refined position” and that the church was interested in leading “along the road to reconciliation.”

Nevertheless, Moreno recommended that a Vatican representative take part in mediation because some bishops are seen as supportive of “sectors that are close to the de facto government.” One exception is Bishop Luis Santos Villeda of Santa Rosa de Copán, who publicly criticized the bishops’ statement in July. On Sept. 24 his diocese issued a statement questioning the legitimacy of the Micheletti government and urging a return to “constitutional order.”

Despite positive signs, hurdles remain to bringing the parties together. Leaders of other governments have insisted on Zelaya’s return to office, but Micheletti has said he would not hand over power. The parties also disagree about a proposal for a referendum on a constitutional assembly. It was Zelaya’s attempt to put the question on the November ballot that triggered the coup.

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