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Harassing Relief Workers in Salvador

CHURCH-SUPPORTED organizations in El Salvador have played a vital role in providing assistance to the people victimized by that country's civil war. In addition, church leaders have been in the forefront of efforts to reach a peaceful resolution of the war. Future possibilities of achieving peace, political stability, and economic development in El Salvador depend to a large degree on continuing encouragement of the work of these humanitarian organizations. Recent Salvadoran government actions do not bode well for that goal, however. During the recent guerrilla offensive in San Salvador, hundreds of refugees fled into church sanctuaries and shelters. As they have done throughout the 10-year conflict, the civilian victims of the war went in search of food, medical care, and protection from the violence. Salvadoran and foreign church workers, including members of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, and Episcopalian denominations, attended the hungry and wounded and sought to provide protection against human rights abuses through their mere presence among the refugees.

While the fighting still raged, government forces entered church shelters and arrested dozens of the assistance workers, including doctors and nurses. Others were arrested after the offensive. Foreigners were deported; the Salvadorans remain in prison. Many other foreign workers are still in the country, but are unable to go about their relief work due to fears of arrest and deportation. Salvadoran and foreign religious leaders have gone into hiding or have left the country, after receiving death threats.

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The small community of foreign assistance workers in El Salvador, who have tried to lend humanitarian aid to the victims of the war while maintaining a careful stance between the opposing sides, is being severely curtailed.

The cloud of fear that envelopes the church organizations in El Salvador has very serious repercussions for their vital humanitarian activities. Moreover, the possibilities of achieving long-term, durable solutions to the fundamental problems of poverty and underdevelopment and the consequent social upheaval in El Salvador have been seriously eroded through the Salvadoran government's actions. While the chances for resolution of such profound social conditions have always been tenuous, recent efforts sponsored by the United Nations held the promise of achieving fundamental changes.

The May 1989 the International Conference on Central American Refugees, Displaced Persons, and Returnees (CIREFCA) was convened to lay the foundation for regional economic development in concert with the promotion of peace and political stability in Central America. There was a strong concern at the conference for finding effective solutions to both the causes and the consequences of massive population displacements in the region. The international donor community responded eagerly to the requests to support development projects in El Salvador and the other Central American countries.

Some donor countries saw in development-assistance projects the opportunity to provide protection to the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who have been displaced from their homes and villages by the violence and human rights abuses. They urged that aid be channeled through private voluntary organizations and that refugee and displaced-persons organizations be represented in the aid process. This would enhance the role of the recipients of the aid and of nongovernmental assistance providers who had earned the respect and trust of the displaced population. The result would be greater popular support of development efforts and thus increased chances of success.

In the context of these encouraging developments, it is especially troubling that the Salvadoran government is moving against church personnel, imprisoning Salvadorans, and arresting and deporting foreigners. The likelihood of finding major donor countries willing to channel development aid to El Salvador under these conditions is much diminished. A promising international effort to find lasting and humane solutions to the problems of El Salvador has been frustrated, as military objectives take precedence over humanitarian concerns.

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