Pope lends support to Peru farmers claiming harassment by Catholic group

Crux [Denver CO]

April 14, 2024

By Elise Ann Allen

Pope Francis Saturday sent a brief video message to a group of peasant farmers in Peru who assert they’ve experienced legal and physical harassment at the hands of an organization linked to a scandal-plagued Catholic movement called the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV).

In his video message, Pope Francis greeted the “peasant communities of Piura,” where the community lives, saying, “I know what happened to you.”

“Defend your land, don’t let it be stolen,” he said, thanking the community for what they do and assuring them that “I am praying for you from here, and I am close to you, and with pleasure I give you my blessing.”

He closed his message asking for prayers, and told the community to have “courage, and go forward!”

Saturday marked the 446th anniversary of the peasant farming community of Catacaos in Piura, which for years has faced a legal battle with a handful of companies operated by or with ties to the SCV, including the San Juan Bautista Civil Association, the Empresa Agrícola Santa Regina SAC, and the Inversiones San Jose.

A lay group founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in the 1970s, the SCV for nearly ten years has been enveloped by scandals surrounding allegations of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, as well as abuses of power and authority and accusations of financial corruption against Figari and other top-ranking members.

Figari himself was accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse within the community, including sexual abuse of minors, and in 2017 was sanctioned by the Vatican and prohibited from having further contact with members of the group. He is currently living in exile in southern Italy.

Last summer Pope Francis dispatched his top abuse investigating duo, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, to Lima to begin a formal inquiry into SCV and its various attempts at reform.

As part of their inquiries, Scicluna and Bertomeu met with members of the Catacaos community and a top member of the SCV, Archbishop José Antonio Eguren, who stepped down from leadership of the Piura archdiocese earlier this month amid the Vatican’s ongoing investigation.

Eguren, 67, has been accused of financial corruption and land trafficking in Piura, including the legal harassment of the Catacaos community, founded in 1578 by Virrey Toledo, making it the oldest of the peasant communities in Peru.

It is common throughout much of Latin America for peasants and members of the poorer classes to establish roots on a patch of inexpensive land and live there undisturbed for decades, or even hundreds of years, while having no formal title to the land on which they live, usually due to a lack of money or legal support.

Companies who want to buy up the land will often strike a deal with the titleholder and effectively run the inhabitants out of town through threats and intimidation, at times resorting to violence carried out by criminal groups.

In the province of Piura, farmers from Catacaos since 2012 have been battling both threats from criminal groups and legal suits by companies of the SCV who wish to buy up the land they occupy.

In a video message sent to Pope Francis, Marcelino Ynga, the leader of the Catacaos community, thanked the pontiff for his concern and for sending Scicluna and Bertomeu to Peru to investigate “this criminal organization, the Sodalicio, which tried to slander us, interrogate us and imprison us.”

Ynga, 76, said two members of his community were killed in violent attempts to drive them off of their land, and that the community is facing 15 legal complaints that each carry a penalty of six years in prison.

He said that they have also been accused of terrorism, which can carry a penalty of up to 110 years in prison, meaning “I would need to be born again” to complete the sentence.

“This organization, the Sodalicio, condemned us, beyond death,” he said.

Ynga said his community is happy for the actions the pope has taken, and “we peasants here, in the name of all peasants, send a strong embrace from here, from Peru, from the indigenous peasant community of Catacaos.”

He thanked the pope “for what you are doing so that this corruption of the Sodalicio disappears from our minds and disappears from all of Peru, because it does so much damage to human people,” and he also thanked Francis for the visit of Scicluna and Bertomeu, calling them “a saving commission sent to our land.”

“It’s as if, Holy Father, you sent two angels to our beloved Peru to help us,” he said.