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Veronica’s Veil in Honduras

April 14, 2011

By Jean Stokan, Institute Justice Team

Yesterday I represented the Sisters of Mercy in a meeting at the State Department on the human rights situation in Honduras. My hope was to hold up “Veronica’s veil.”

For the last three weeks, I’ve had a diet of 10 to 20 emails a day about the wave of repression unleashed against striking teachers in Honduras. The emails included pictures of bloodied heads and broken bodies, and a litany of reports about the excessive use of force against protesters by Honduran security forces, as well as attacks on members of a truth commission set up by the human rights organizations, and much more.Twice in the last weeks I’ve shut my office door just to take time to weep from the stories and to pray. I imagined Mary and the women at the foot of the cross, the pain we all feel when watching the suffering of others.

On March 18th, Ilse Velasquez, a 59-year-old teacher, was killed in the protest when security forces fired a tear gas projectile at her head.  She was knocked unconscious and then run over by a driver asphyxiated by the same tear gas chemicals.  The government, eager for a scapegoat, blamed the driver. When I contacted the U.S. Embassy in Honduras about the case, they repeated the official story, and said most of the injured were security officials, four of whom were supposedly hospitalized.  I pressed for the sources of their information, as by that time I had close to a hundred emails in my inbox of reports to the contrary. Another lesson from Lent: one must draw close to the cross, close to those who are the victims of violence, and poverty, and marginalization.

Three days after the teacher Ilse was killed, I was with Berta Oliva, one of her closest friends.   Berta is the director of COFADEH, a human rights organization in Honduras. She was speaking at a standing-room-only Congressional briefing arranged by Rep. Jim McGovern (MA). She and a delegation of human rights defenders were in Washington for a week of advocacy visits co-sponsored by our Mercy Institute Justice Team, Maryknoll, the Latin America Working Group, the Honduras Accompaniment Project and others.

We had met Berta during our Mercy delegation to Honduras after the June 2009 coup. She and Ilse had founded COFADEH after losing close family members in the violence in the 1980s. As she spoke in that Congressional hearing room three weeks ago, telling the stories of what was happening to her people, Berta’s face and entire presence were heavy with grief from the loss of Ilse. A Honduran judge and a staff member of a Jesuit research institute also came up to testify. It was then that the image caught me: they were holding up the faces of those being crucified today. They were the Veronicas, living at great risk because they’d had the courage to speak out.

Yesterday, we brought their stories to the State Department and asked those officials, pressed them, to speak out publicly in Honduras against the human rights violations, and to make US support for the Honduran government contingent on an end to the repression and impunity that for too long have reigned there.

As we prepare to enter Holy Week, we ask for your prayers for the people of Honduras, including our Mercy community there. You might consider praying with this video clip showing images of the repression over the last month. Near the end is a scene with a line of people holding up the pictures of those killed in Honduras since the coup. This is a time to be with them, the Veronicas of our day.

Also, please ask your U.S. Representative to sign onto a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to ensure a more vigorous U.S. response in support of human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law in Honduras.

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