Brazilian Catholic Church campaigns against deportation and human rights abuses, 1980

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
It is not clear exactly when the campaign ended. This campaign, which focused around Padre Vito's deportation, was part of a larger movement by the Brazilian Catholic Church against poverty and human rights abuses during the military government. For that reason the end of this campaign is vague.
October
1980
to
December
1980
Location and Goals
Country: 
Brazil
Goals: 
To prevent the deportation of Padre Vito Miracapillo and other foreign clergy members.

Secondarily, to end the human rights abuses of the military government

 

In 1964 the military took control of the Brazilian government in a coup d’état and began a twenty-year military rule. The government often had disagreements with the Catholic clergy in Brazil, especially foreign missionaries and priests, which made up about 40% of the Brazilian clergy. During that time many of these clergy members were espousing Liberation Theology, a use of biblical teaching for the purpose of improving and liberating the oppressed and the poor, especially the lower class in rural Brazil. However, this radical teaching often put clergy members in confrontation with the government.

Beginning as early as 1968 when the regime had deported a French priest for supporting an industrial strike by refusing to hold mass, the military government had often persecuted activist clergy members. In August 1980, under the leadership of General João Figueiredo, the Brazilian government passed the Foreigners’ Law, which prevented foreigners from taking part in any political activity. The law seemed to target the radical Catholic clergy specifically.

Although that Catholic clergy had resisted the military government in isolated incidences before 1980 through the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB), whether in solidarity with lower class peasants in struggles with landowners or by speaking out against the military rule, after the Foreigners’ Law was passed, this resistance took on a specific focus. When Padre Vito Miracapillo, an Italian priest, refused to hold an Independence Day mass in September 1980 because he felt that the Brazilian people were not truly independent—due to human rights abuses and the oppression of the poor—, he was quickly arrested, put on trial, and deported by the government on November 1, 1980. The CNBB led the resistance to the deportation of Padre Vito and other clergy members.

After Padre Vito’s arrest, many individual priests, bishops, and cardinals made declarations in support of Padre Vito, including Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo, Cardinal Avelar Brandão of Salvador, and the Cardinal of Rio de Janeiro. By the end of October it seemed that most of the Brazilian Catholic Church hierarchy had come out in support of Padre Vito. And Padre Vito was not the only one threatened with deportation as the military government continued to target foreign clergy members during this period. In addition to speaking out against Padre Vito’s deportation, the Catholic Church continued its open opposition to the human rights abuses of the military government and criticized the deportation of foreign priests in general.

When he flew to Brasilia for his deportation in late October, Padre Vito left an open letter against the land tenure system and the nationalist government, which was subsequently released to the media.

Although Padre Vito was deported on November 1, the resistance effort continued in many different forms through October and November of 1980. When five Brazilian bishops attended the Vatican synod in the end of October, the bishops refused to attend a luncheon for them at the Brazilian embassy. After voting on November 5 the bishops of Ceará openly pledged their support for Padre Vito. Another Brazilian priest during that period composed a song entitled “Vito, Vito, Vitoria” in support of Padre Vito and condemning the government’s action. Because of this, the government arrested the priest who had composed it.

On November 9 the Southern Regional Conference of the CNBB openly reiterated their support for foreign clergy in Brazil and their continued work with the lower class in Brazil. Furthermore this Conference openly criticized the deportation of Padre Vito.

It is unclear when the campaign around the deportations of foreign clergy from Brazil ended, or if it ended at all until the law was lifted. Just as Catholic clergy had protested the government before 1980 through declarations and refusals of services, the priests and nuns of the Catholic Church continued their resistance to the military government’s human rights abuses after 1980. Arguably, the progress they made played a large role in the Diretas Já nonviolent campaign for free elections in Brazil in 1984, which successfully ended the 20-year military rule.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Brazilian Catholic Church resistance to poverty and human rights abuses pre-1980 (1). Diretas Já nonviolent campaign for free elections in Brazil in 1984 (2).

Sources: 
Zirker, Daniel. "The Brazilian Church-State Crisis of 1980: Effective Nonviolent Action in a Military Dictatorship." in Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective. eds. Stephen Zunes, Lester Kurtz, and Sarah Beth Asher. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. pp. 259-278

Bruneau, Thomas C. The Church in Brazil: The Politics of Religion. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Additional Notes: 
This campaign was part of a larger movement by the Brazilian Catholic Church against poverty and human rights abuses during the military government.

For more information on Church-State relations for that period see: Serbin, Kenneth. Secret dialogues : church-state relations, torture, and social justice in authoritarian Brazil. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. (Not Read).

This case was originally researched by Aurora Muñoz in 2010, but has been rewritten with an extra source and a smaller time frame focus.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Max Rennebohm 11/04/2011