With raids, arrests and expulsions, the Salvadoran government and its security forces have embarked on a campaign to dismantle a liberal church network that the authorities think is supporting leftist rebels.
The crackdown comes in response to the largest rebel offensive in 10 years of civil war. Targets include priests, lay workers and foreign employees of humanitarian agencies, whom the government accuses of supporting revolution.
The U.S.-backed government denies that it is persecuting the church, but Yvonne Dilling, a representative of the U.S. National Council of Churches who traveled to San Salvador last month to investigate the problem, said, "The work of the church has been closed down, paralyzed, destroyed."
As a result of raids by state security forces at the St. John Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Salvador, most of the church's leadership has been jailed.
Fifteen Lutheran Church lay workers, among them four Americans and a Salvadoran who heads the church's legal aid office, were detained by the National Guard and later released. Posters advertising a peace march were confiscated. The foreigners were expelled. The bishop of the church left the country after his life was threatened.
Soldiers shot at the feet of a Spanish-born priest protecting a group of war refugees at St. Mary of the Poor, a Roman Catholic church in a slum district of the capital. A few days later, the priest fled to Spain.
At Christ the Savior, a church associated with leftist causes in the poor neighborhood of Zacamil, uniformed gunmen ransacked offices, sprayed the sanctuary with gunfire, scattered Communion wafers on the ground and stole the cross.
Government and military officials say they are trying to break up "front organizations" that have operated under a veil of legality while funneling money and support to rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
But the church workers say they are pastors to the poor--whoever the poor might be and whatever side they might be on. Church leaders often advocate sweeping social change, and the Establishment regards this as subversive.
People involved in the humanitarian work fear that the government crackdown will cripple a wide range of social service projects--food programs, health care, relief for the displaced--that churches and other groups sponsor.
Already, San Salvador's Baptist Church has suspended a literacy program, and a Los Angeles-based medical aid organization has closed its office after it was ransacked by soldiers.
According to human rights organizations, soldiers have carried out more than 50 raids on churches, residences and church-sponsored refugee centers. Of the 79 foreign missionaries and lay church workers in El Salvador last month, 31 have fled the country, among them at least eight Americans.
The Rev. Luis Serrano, head of the Episcopal Church here, was arrested late last month, along with 17 lay workers, and ordered held for trial. He and eight other church workers have been implicated in a guerrilla attack on military headquarters because two trucks loaded with weapons were reportedly seen leaving the church.
The military is especially suspicious of the role and influence of what they consider to be pro-rebel foreigners in church and humanitarian work. Flyers bearing the air force seal and dropped from the air in recent days have advised "patriotic Salvadorans" of their "legitimate right" to kill "FMLN terrorists and their internationalist allies."
American church worker Jennifer Jean Casolo was arrested Nov. 25 and charged with storing weapons for the rebels on the grounds of her residence. Casolo says she is innocent, and friends say she was framed to discredit church work. Her Salvadoran lawyer received five death threats by telephone the day he took her case, and a bullet was slipped under the door of an American churchman who went to visit her.
Several international relief agencies have felt the pressure, including U.N. refugee and children's programs, which relocated to Guatemala after soldiers occupied their offices in San Salvador.
U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III sent a two-paragraph letter this week to President Alfredo Cristiani expressing concern about religious and humanitarian workers in El Salvador and asking the leader to give his personal attention to their welfare.
However, U.S. Ambassador William Walker, who maintains that the church is not being persecuted in El Salvador, has said he understands the motives behind the government crackdown. He compares the arrest of foreign missionaries to the internment of Japanese in the United States at the start of World War II.
"In the heat after the attack on Pearl Harbor . . . there was a lot of emotion and anger flowing," Walker said. "We are in a situation in which a city is under attack by some very vicious, well-armed people. Given that circumstance, this (raids and arrests) happens."
Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, chief of staff of the Salvadoran armed forces, said his troops are using "good intelligence" to weed out rebel collaborators believed to be hiding under the cloak of church activity.
"The armed forces," he said, "are not persecuting the church as an institution. We are reacting to information that our intelligence supplies us. There are members of the church who have certain identification with and have given support to the FMLN."
But religious leaders are alarmed by the innuendo and unproven charges used to link them to the insurrection.
Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, said in a recent Sunday homily that the military campaign of "unjust accusations" against the church "touches the limits of true persecution."
"In this climate," he said, "many abuses are committed, not only against personnel of the Catholic Church, but also against many people who care about helping the most humble and the most poor."
The sins of a few, he said, are being used to blame the many.
President Cristiani has said that although the majority of church groups are engaged in legitimate relief work, there are exceptions that warrant investigation.
Historically, government and military leaders have attributed the rebel insurgency to the decision of many Catholic priests to help the poor better their lives--a decision that conflicts with longstanding social and economic structures that concentrate El Salvador's wealth in relatively few hands.
In the 1970s, a handful of young Jesuit seminarians took up arms and joined the rebels. Currently, three priests--two of them foreigners--travel with the rebels, though they insist that their work is pastoral and that they do not carry weapons.
With last month's urban guerrilla offensive, many churches found themselves caught in the middle.
Several were seized by the guerrillas when the offensive started Nov. 11, then retaken by the army. Other churches were drawn into the conflict when they gave medical treatment to wounded people who in some cases were rebels, or shelter to groups of refugees that the army suspected included guerrillas.
In Cuscatancingo, a poor neighborhood north of San Salvador, a Catholic church literally became the battlefield. Guerrillas seized the church at the start of the offensive and from there attacked a nearby army barracks. The army fought to regain control and drove the rebels from the area.
The sanctuary was so damaged by gunfire that priests removed the statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints, and a Mass said there Dec. 3 by Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas was held on the church patio. Soldiers have been camped on the church's grounds for more than a week.
Soldiers also raided the offices of Emmanuel Baptist Church and the Mennonite Central Committee, and one Catholic Church was searched six times.
The intruders at Christ the Savior in Zacamil left a sign that warned: "Do Not Enter. Mine Field." That kept worshipers away for a week.
The history of Christ the Savior Church--it has produced two of the priests who work alongside the guerrillas--and some of its members' pro-FMLN sympathies made it an obvious target for the military. At least one parishioner is believed to have fought with the rebels in the latest offensive.
But the church's plight is also an example of how grass-roots missionary work, such as organizing poor people to improve their lives, can open a parish to suspicion.
"The army has always seen this parish as a center of subversion," said Father William Schmidt, a Maryknoll priest from Long Island, N.Y. "We try to relate the Scripture to what is really happening in the country."
After the Christ the Savior Church was searched and ransacked, two parishioners reported that their homes, too, had been raided. Soldiers forced one to use his truck to cart off a television set and other goods, Schmidt said.
According to a number of parishioners, the police have compiled a list of about 30 church members who are suspected of helping the rebels. They are apparently being sought for questioning, and many are in hiding.