Hundreds Pray for Cease-Fire in El Salvador

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Salvadoran refugees and hundreds of Orange County Catholics joined Sunday in denouncing U.S. military aid to El Salvador and calling on President Bush to press for a cease-fire in that country's bloody civil war, which has flared up ferociously in recent weeks.

Speaking to a packed house of several hundred parishioners at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Santa Ana, Father Jaime Soto, vicar for the Latino community in the Diocese of Orange, condemned the Salvadoran military, which he said is "profaning the church" by shutting down relief efforts and curtailing church activities.

He and other church leaders also blamed rightist extremists for the Nov. 16 murder of six Jesuit priests and two other people.

"It is important for all of us to raise our voice loud enough so that the El Salvadoran government will allow the churches and humanitarian agencies to do their work," Soto said. "It must desist from these blatant violations of human rights."

The Salvadoran government has denied playing a role in the murder of the Jesuit priests and has pledged a full investigation.

Representatives of the Catholic church in Southern California have been among the first to offer aid to Salvadorans in reaction to the new fighting in that country, which has left hundreds of people dead. Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony returned late Saturday from a one-day visit to El Salvador.

Mahony, who delivered 20 tons of medical supplies and food to his Salvadoran church counterpart, said his visit was intended to demonstrate support for El Salvador's bishops in reaction to "shocking and intolerable" threats against priests and religious workers.

Many of the same sentiments bubbled near the surface during Sunday's service in Santa Ana, in which churchgoers, includ ing several Salvadoran refugees, angrily attacked the regime and accused it of widespread atrocities. Parishioners joined in prayers calling for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

When church leaders asked for a special collection to benefit Salvadoran relief efforts, collection baskets came back brimming.

"I was a student in the university in San Salvador," Juan Castillo said. "For the army, being a student means being a potential guerrilla, so I left the university and went to my home in Santa Elena. . . . But when I got to my home, the death squads were taking the young people and shooting them, so I came to the United States."

Castillo said he fled the country in 1982 and has lived in Santa Ana since then.

Another refugee, Manuel Gonzales, said he arrived in the United States just eight days ago, leaving behind a country engulfed by civil war and racked by indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.

"We lost many families," Gonzales said. Like others at Sunday's service, he laid much of the blame for Salvadoran repression on U.S. support of the regime.

In particular, Gonzales criticized President Bush's Thanksgiving address, during which the President listed Cuba, Nicaragua and Panama as Latin America's only non-democratic nations.

"How could he not include El Salvador?" Gonzales asked.

Many in the congregation, made up almost entirely of Latinos, nodded ruefully.

Sister Catherine Gray of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange, called on churchgoers to deluge federal officials with letters and phone calls demanding a cease-fire.

"We must exert pressure so that the U.S. presence will work to end the conflict, not continue it," she said. "It is the blood of our brother Jesuits who were killed last week that will bring about justice."

While speakers denounced the Salvadoran government inside the church, others pressed the case outside, raising money for relief efforts and recruiting volunteers for a protest Friday.

"We are gratified by the response we are getting," said one Salvadoran refugee, who asked only to be identified as Dagoberto. "But more is required, because we can't let the cycle of violence keep repeating itself in El Salvador."

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