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Pope backs peasant farmers in land dispute with Catholic group

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta is pictured speaking during a news conference at the Vatican in this Oct. 8, 2018, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis expressed his support for peasant farmers in northern Peru threatened to be evicted off what they claim is their ancestral territory by companies associated with a Catholic movement.

“I know what is happening to you. Defend the land, don’t let it be stolen,” the pope said in a video message circulated online April 13. The video was posted the next day on X by the office of Archbishop Carlos Gustavo Castillo Mattasoglio of Lima.

Pope Francis directed his message to the peasant farming communities of Piura in northern Peru, which have accused companies associated with the Catholic movement Sodalitium Christianae Vitae of expropriating their ancestral lands and harassing the farmers with threatened legal action.

The land dispute is still being considered by a Peruvian court.

“Thank you for what you do,” the pope told the farmers in the video message. “From here, I pray for you and I gladly give you my blessing.”

In July 2023, Pope Francis sent the Vatican’s top abuse investigators — Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Spanish Msgr. Jordi Bertomeu — to investigate the Sodalitium in Peru, which had been accused of systemic spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse among its ranks as well as financial corruption.

During their investigation, the pair met with members of the peasant community of Catacaos near Piura. The community’s leader, Marcelino Ynga, said he told the Vatican delegation about the harassment and abuse suffered at the hands of Sodalitium-associated organizations, such as the St. John the Baptist Civil Association, which he said had slandered and threatened the farmers in order to drive them off their land.

Responding to Pope Francis’ video message, Ynga thanked the pope for launching the investigation into the Sodalitium, which he called a “criminal organization” that attempted “to slander us, interrogate us and imprison us.” He also said two members of the peasant community were killed in efforts to remove the farmers from their land.  

The Vatican said April 2 that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Archbishop José Eguren Anselmi of Piura, a professed member of Sodalitium since 1981.

The Sodalitium was founded in Peru by lay Catholic Luis Fernando Figari in 1971 and was acknowledged as a society of apostolic life; it later grew to operate in several other Latin American countries and Italy. Although the movement was previously accused of abuse, a 2015 book detailed its alleged psychological and sexual abuse and a 2017 internal investigation found that Figari and other high-ranking members of the movement abused 19 minors and 10 adults.

In 2017, the then-Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life banned Figari from living with a Sodalitium community, participating in Sodalitium activities or contacting any Sodalitium member.

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