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Mining is no savior for El Salvador, says Catholic Church

El Salvador's clergy came out strongly against mining in 2007, condemning the environmental and social damage it can cause.

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Juana Moreno Hernandez (r.) attends a Roman Catholic mass in Santa Tecla, El Salvador.

Oscar Leiva Marinero/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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On a rainy Sunday night at the Santa Clara de Asis church, east of San Salvador, Friar Domingo Solis addresses 70 rapt parishioners, explaining why he believes mining is impossible here.

"It threatens our water, it threatens animals, and it threatens lives," he says. "But it's not just me. And it's not just all the bishops of the country."

The Franciscan priest asks those opposed to mining to raise their hand. Everyone responds. "And you, too, are against mining," he affirms. (Read the Monitor's related story on mining in El Salvador.)

In the mid-2000s, as the mining debate heated up here, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, the church's main authority here, threw its considerable weight behind the antimining movement.

Led by trained chemist and then-Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, El Salvador's Roman Catholic leaders signed a letter against metallic mining.

"The experience lived in neighboring countries that have permitted mining of gold and silver is truly sad and regrettable," it reads, citing water contamination, use of cyanide to extract metals, and irreversible environmental damage.

It's not uncommon for the Catholic Church to take a stance on sociopolitical matters worldwide. And El Salvador's clergy has a rich – and often controversial – history of jumping into the fray.

But what does mining have to do with religion? "I don't think it's in the Bible," says Juana Moreno Hernandez, a retiree who lives in Santa Ana, outside the capital. "But [opposing mining] is about common well-being," she says at a centennial celebration of San Salvador's archdiocese.

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"Catholicism promotes life," says José María Tojeira, former rector of the University of Central America in San Salvador. "Mining threatens life."

While Catholicism has seen a decline here, the church still holds political clout, says Erica Dahl-Bredine of Catholic Relief Services. "People in the national government have said they are following the Catholic Church's lead on this," she says.

• Reporting in El Salvador was made possible by a fellowship from The International Center for Journalists.

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