Pope Concedes Unjustifiable Crimes in Converting South Americans

By Ian Fisher

  • May 24, 2007

ROME, May 23 — Pope Benedict XVI tried Wednesday to quell anger in South America over his recent comments about the conversion of native populations, conceding that “unjustifiable crimes” were committed in the conquest of the continent 500 years ago.

The pope told a weekly audience here in Italian that it was “not possible to forget the suffering and the injustices inflicted by colonizers against the indigenous population, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled.”

He said in a speech last week in Brazil that native populations had been “silently longing” for the faith colonizers had brought to South America.

He said in the speech, “The proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.”

The speech infuriated many South American leaders and indigenous groups, mirroring the broader and more violent reaction last year after the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor as referring to Islam as “evil and inhuman.” These leaders and groups cited the standard historical view that Spanish and Portuguese colonizers forced conversion by giving natives a choice between “the Cross and the sword.”

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela demanded that the pope apologize, and one indigenous group in Ecuador said, “Representatives of the Catholic Church of those times, with honorable exceptions, were accomplices, deceivers and beneficiaries of one of the most horrific genocides of all humanity.”

But unlike his ultimate apology for his words on Islam, Benedict’s response also repeated his contention that Catholicism in South America had favorably “shaped their culture for 500 years.”

“While we do not overlook the various injustices and sufferings that accompanied colonization, the Gospel has expressed and continues to express the identity of the peoples in this region and provides inspiration to address the challenges of our globalized era,” he told pilgrims in St. Peters’ Square on Wednesday, in English.

In the public audiences on Wednesdays, the pope normally delivers a lengthy address in Italian, with summaries in other languages. The pope’s repetition of his qualification in English seemed to underscore the Vatican’s desire to soften his earlier words.

Responding to the pope, the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon, of which Jecinaldo Sateré Mawé is the coordinator, said, “It is arrogant and disrespectful to regard our cultural heritage as inferior.”

In an interview with Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, a prominent historian, was even more critical. “The process of colonization was one of destruction of Amerindian culture,” he said. “The missionaries were at the service of a religion that had incorporated the authoritarian and despotic elements of European monarchy.”

After the speech on Islam, and again after the Brazil trip, some critics, as well as some supporters, said the comments by the pope — whose previous career was more concerned with theology than with public policy — indicated he had a deaf ear for the political implications of his words.

His clarification on Wednesday echoed an apology the Roman Catholic Church made in Brazil in 2000 for “sins and errors” committed against native populations and blacks there over the preceding 500 years.

Larry Rohter contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

source https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/24/world/americas/24pope.html

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