Brazil's Truth Commission to investigate church

AP News

11/7/2012 2:07:34 PM - AP News

SAO PAULO (AP) — The Truth Commission investigating human rights abuses committed by Brazil's former dictatorship will also look into the role Catholic and evangelical churches played during the 1964-1985 military government.

Established last year by President Dilma Rousseff, the commission will investigate whether pro-dictatorship clergy committed human rights abuses or supported members of the military responsible for such abuses.

Rousseff herself is a former leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned for more than three years and tortured during the dictatorship. She signed the law establishing the commission, which was given two years to conclude its investigation into the torture, murder and forced disappearances of people opposed to the dictatorship.

Brazil has never punished military officials who committed human rights abuses, unlike Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, which also had repressive military regimes. A recent study by the Brazilian government concluded last year that 475 people were killed or "disappeared" by agents of the military regime, far less than in neighboring Argentina or Chile.

"The activities of the clergy who opposed the dictatorship as well as the actions of religious groups that backed the regime will be analyzed," said commission member Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who will head the investigation.

The church saw the coup d'etat as a strike against communism, which they feared President Joao Goulart would install in Brazil, said Fernando Altemeyer, a theologian at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

"The Roman Catholic hierarchy was involved in preparing the 1964 coup d'etat and at first openly backed the military regime," Pinheiro said.

But the church decided it could no longer support the military government when it saw that the regime was imprisoning and torturing real and feared opponents, Altemeyer said. Members of the church also began suffering persecution, with at least 100 bishops, priests and nuns arrested and many tortured during the dictatorship, he said.

The church then became an outspoken human rights defender and staunch opponent of the military regime, Pinheiro said.

The role played by evangelical churches during the dictatorship is less well known, he said, "but like the Catholic clergy there were those who collaborated with the regime and those who opposed it and were arrested and tortured."

The commission has no prosecutorial power, but "depending on the outcome of the investigation it could denounce and determine responsibilities," Pinheiro said.

The commission's final report won't result in prosecutions because of a 1979 law granting amnesty for political crimes committed during the dictatorship era. The commission does, however, have subpoena powers, and public servants and military personnel are legally obligated to cooperate.

"What we want is to have a comprehensive understanding of what happened. A truth commission cannot and must not avoid this theme," Pinheiro said.

The creation of the commission stirred resistance from conservative segments of the military, who said the current left-leaning government would use it as an instrument of revenge.

Advocates say that investigating who was involved in torture, murders and disappearances is essential if Brazil is to move forward.