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Pope, in Paraguay, Calls for Freedom, Respect for Human Rights

May 17, 1988

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) _ Pope John Paul II lectured Paraguay’s authoritarian president, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, on human rights and political freedoms Monday as the pontiff began the last swing of his Latin American tour.

Minutes after the pope’s arrival in Paraguay, police arrested the Rev. Donald Bahlinger of Baton Rouge, La., and three Paraguayan labor and peasant leaders, according to local Roman Catholic Church offcials. Bahlinger was later released, according to the Asuncion radio station Caritas.

The pope defended the right of the church to criticize injustice.

″You can’t corner the church in its temples, as you can’t corner God in the conscience of man,″ the pope told Stroessner, 75, in an encounter in the presidential palace, before the diplomatic corps and ministers of state.

John Paul said Christian duty requires one to be ″a firm defender of justice, peace, freedom, public and private honesty and the defense of life and in favor of the rights of the human person.″

The pope did not explicitly criticize Stroessner, the longest-ruling head of state in the Western Hemisphere. But he said, ″The task of governing will be immensely facilitated″ by ″promoting dialogue and a greater participation of everyone in public affairs.″

Stroessner has been widely criticized for barring a genuine political opposition in this nation of 3.8 million.

The pope, who spoke Spanish, also said, ″Respect for human rights, as is well known, is not a question of political convenience but stems from the dignity of the person by virtue of his condition as a creature of God.″

Stroessner, in turn, delivered an impassioned defense of his law-and-order government and stressed Paraguay’s Catholic traditions.

″This country opens its heart to the Supreme Pastor with the vast panorama of its auspicious present: this Paraguay of today, without political or social crises, without tumult, without street violence, without political priosners, without hate,″ he said.

The pontiff, in white robes, and Stroessner, in a gray suit, sat side by side in high-backed chairs and took turns delivering speeches before the presidential podium.

The pontiff and Paraguayan leader also met privately for 30 minutes.

John Paul II said in his arrival speech that priests ″fulfill their evangelizing role″ through social teaching.

The rightist government has sharply criticized the local church’s involvement in social and labor issues, calling some priests subversives.

At 1:40 p.m. EDT, 10 minutes after the pope arrived, police detained Bahlinger, labor leader Ruben Lisboa, and peasant activists Celestino Chamorro and Victor Benitez, according to a communique issued by the Paraguayan Episcopal Council.

The four were carried off to an unknown location after they emerged from the downtown Encarnacion Church where peasants were carrying on a protest fast and prayer service, the communique said.

On Monday morning Bahlinger told The Associated Press that Paraguayan peasants were repressed by the government. ″You can taste the fear in the countryside. It’s diabolical. It’s evil,″ he said.

Bahlinger said the fast was designed to call attention to the peasants’ appeals for land reform and better working and living conditions.

Bahlinger, a Jesuit, said he had worked in Paraguay for eight years and was based at San Ignacio, 125 miles south of Asuncion.

Several peasant activists remained in the church. ″The police have us surrounded, and they’re ambushing people as they walk out,″ Corazon Medina, general secretary of the National Peasant Movement, said in a telephone interview.

The Caritas radio station did not provide details on Bahlinger’s release and there was no word on where the detained Paraguayans were.

Last week, the government canceled a papal meeting with a church-sponsored group, Builders of Society, made up of intellectuals and politicians, including representatives of opposition groups.

Authorities lifted the ban on the meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, after two days of talks with church officials.

On Monday afternoon, the pope celebrated Mass for tens of thousands of Catholic faithful.

He canonized three Jesuit missionary priests killed by natives in 1628, including Roque Gonzalez, born in Asuncion. He became Paraguay’s first native- born saint.

With this visit to Paraguay, John Paul has now toured every Latin American country except Cuba in his nearly 10-year-old papacy. Earlier in this 12-day trip, he stopped in Uruguay, Bolivia and Peru.

Ninety percent of Paraguayans profess Roman Catholicism.

Stroessner, 75, led a 1954 coup and has ruled since with the backing of the armed forces and the Colorado Party.

He won his eighth straight term in February. The opposition charged the elections were fraudulent.

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