In Lat Am, New Year opens with hopes for peace but realities of extortion | #whatsapp | #lovescams | #phonescams

Across Latin America, 2022 has begun with Catholic bishops both taking the initiative by calling for peace, dignified work opportunities and intergenerational dialogue, but also reeling from external blows ranging from extortion scams in Mexico to a faltering peace process in Colombia.

CELAM rings the year calling for intergenerational dialogue

Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos of Trujillo in Peru and President of the Latin American Bishops Conference (Celam), said in his New Year’s message to the Church in the region that “the experience of dialogue has strongly marked our Church in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

On behalf of the bishops of the continent, Cabrejos echoed Pope Francis’ message for the 55th World Day for Peace, in which he “calls us to redouble our efforts to promote intergenerational dialogue, to care for quality education and to achieve decent work.”

Cabrejos highlighted the experience of dialogue in the Church at a continental level, citing as an example November’s Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean. He defined it as a “reference point for the Synod on Synodality, which is already in its listening phase all over the world.”

He also emphasized the need to “place our experience of listening at the service of intergenerational dialogue, to forge paths of peace that include the concerns and proposals of the various communities and cultures, where ancestral knowledge is connected with the concerns of the new generations to build a common agenda that responds to the most pressing problems.”

In Mexico, the Church faces extortion

According to the country’s Centro Católico Multimedial (CCM) , 2021 saw 79 attacks against members of the Catholic Church in Mexico, including three priests murdered. The center, which tracks religious freedom in a country historically dangerous for religious and priests, found that during the Coronavirus pandemic, extortion demands against Catholic priests, often delivered through social media, also have increased exponentially.

The center’s 2021 “Annual Report on the Situation of the Catholic Church” found that Masses and parish activities carried out remotely due to pandemic restrictions have opened the door to novel forms of extortion against bishops, priests and other agents of evangelization.

The report found that this extortion is concentrated in Mexico City, Chihuahua, Veracruz, Guerrero and Michoacán, the latter two states with a high presence of organized crime. Historically, much like in Colombia, priests in Mexico have been the target of organized crime, seen by drug lords as the last line of defense for youths they wish to enlist in criminal enterprises.

According to the report, the social media platform Tik Tok was the venue most chosen to extort clergymen, often featuring messages of intimidation and demands for money. The reluctance of authorities to follow up on these threats led most priests to forgo reporting them, the report found, with elderly priests often the most vulnerable.

Another common modus operandi has been to send messages asking for money or some other resource to priests through Whatsapp, with death threats, thefts, riots in churches or fabricating scandals used to motivate a positive response.

In December 2021, the secretary general of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, Bishop Ramón Castro Castro, warned that “for months now in several dioceses of our country, there have been cases of extortion with different modus operandi directed towards our priests, religious and parishioners. We are concerned that these events are occurring more and more frequently, therefore we invite you to inform your community so that they do not allow themselves to be deceived”.

In turn, Auxiliary Bishop Alfonso G. Miranda Guardiola of Monterrey denounced on Twitter extortion attempts using his name: “Extortion attempts continue in the church: diocese and curia. Please be alert, and report it,” he warned.

Bishop José Acosta Beltrán of Huejutla was forced to take to social media after messages made the rounds to people in his diocese asking for money to cover the expenses of ill priests. “We have not had the need to ask for any support, Beltrán wrote, denouncing the requests as a scam.

Honduras, the bishops take ownership of rebuilding

In their Christmas and New Years’ message, the Bishops of Honduras asked all the people of good will to assume “the serious and responsible commitment to the reconstruction so needed in our country, which is an authentic peace process.”

Presenting Christmas as a time “of peace and hope,” the prelates wrote that through the birth of Christ “God has enveloped us in his love, so that we learn to love one another in the same way,” therefore “this experience of God’s love must lead us to build just and fraternal social relationships; in this way we will be able to work together, with genuine commitment and a spirit of solidarity, to make Honduras the nation we deserve and need.”

“This Christmas must be for everyone a sign of hope for something new, for the year that is about to begin,” they wrote. “Let us give God a space in our life and in family life, and not repeat what happened in Bethlehem, where there was no room for Jesus anywhere.”

Colombia, still working on peace

“We begin the year 2022 and we want to live it in peace, men and women who work for peace,” wrote Archbishop Luis José Rueda of Bogota, President of the Colombian Bishops’ Conference, in his New Year’s message.

To this end, Rueda recalled three keys that Pope Francis has offered to build peace: education, work and intergenerational dialogue.

An education for peace, service and fraternity is required, the prelate argued, as is the possibility to work, expressing his wish for “all men and women to have a dignified job and that the place of work be a realization of fraternity and solidarity.”

Regarding intergenerational dialogue, he mentioned that children, young people and adults “must live the culture of listening, encounter and dialogue so that there may be true peace in Christ Jesus, the Lord.”

He also invited all Colombians to use these tools and “assume them as their own in the construction of peace.”

In 2016, the world hailed the peace accords that saw Latin America’s most fearsome guerrilla group lay down arms to end a devastating, near six-decade conflict in Colombia. But five years on, the peace remains fragile and violence endemic. The peace deal between the government and the FARC dramatically slowed the national homicide rate: on average, 3,000 people were killed each year during the five decades of the conflict. In 2012, when the peace talks began, 12,000 people were murdered. In following years, the number went down to 9,000, only to spike again in 2021: in the first nine months, 10,500 people were violently killed.

In Argentina, the bishops call for encounter

Bishop Oscar Vicente Ojea of San Isidro, President of the Argentine bishops’ conference, said in his New Year’s message that “the Church celebrates the new year with a birth, celebrating the octave of Christmas: Christ is among us through the Virgin who is the dawn of our salvation.”

The prelate recalled that “Pope Francis tells us in the encyclical Fratelli tutti that ‘life is not time that passes but time of encounter’. We are made for an encounter, we have to open our hearts to an encounter, and this encounter is always a learning process, it is always a growth, this encounter is always the possibility to serve, to grow and to be able to give our life better.”

“Life is lost if it is not given, as Jesus says in the Gospel,” Ojea said. “Let us celebrate then this wonderful event of the birth of Jesus, the Church’s mission is that Jesus be known, that each person may be configured with Jesus and at the same time find his way; to enjoy life is to be able to live for this encounter that makes us grow”, he said.

“May you have a happy year, even in the midst of this difficult time that makes us afraid, that makes us fearful, that makes our future more tenebrous, in the midst of this fear and uncertainty,” he said. “May the Lord teach us to unravel the mystery of the times in which we live in order to be truly happy.”

Though the prelate didn’t go into details, the ‘uncertainty’ he mentions may be a reference both to the COVID-19 pandemic, with record-high positive cases in recent days in Argentina, and the country’s seemingly permanent economic crisis, with an annual inflation rate of 50 percent and half of the population living under the poverty line.

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