Brazilian Bishop Says Infanticide in Amazon ‘Shocking’ But Largely Eliminated by Church

Bishop Wilmar Santin of Itaituba compared the practice among the indigenous tribes to abortion in developed countries.

Article main image

VATICAN CITY — A bishop of a diocese in Brazil has said reports about infanticide being carried out by some indigenous peoples were “shocking,” but that he was unaware of any such practices continuing among the indigenous people who are part of his flock.

Speaking to reporters at the Vatican today during a break in the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, Bishop Wilmar Santin of Itaituba, Brazil, acknowledged infanticide was a practice of the past, and that although he has not witnessed it in his diocese, was unable to say if it continues “for other peoples.”

The issue of infanticide has become a focus of discussions in the media after it emerged that the practice is continuing among possibly as many as 20 indigenous peoples in the Amazon.

Amazonian chief Jonas Marcolino Macuxí also told the Register and a Rome conference this month that infanticide is still practiced, and that it had been dying out until liberation theologians arrived in the region in the 1970s.

Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimenez told reporters Tuesday he was unaware the practice was still occurring, and challenged the media to produce evidence.

Swiss Vatican journalist Giuseppe Rusconi then published four pieces of documented evidence (translated here in English by Italian Vaticanist Sandro Magister).

Among them are details of a bill passing through the Brazilian parliament to prohibit infanticide in indigenous areas, and an article, posted on a missionary website associated with the Brazilian bishops’ conference, which appeared to defend the practice on the grounds that it was not for outsiders to tell the indigenous people how to “protect their children.” The article was quickly removed after Rusconi’s article appeared.

In his comments, Bishop Santin explained how serious the practice was among the Munduruku people of his diocese until religious sisters, many working as nurses, “slowly made sure the practices disappeared completely.” He said the Munduruku people are a “bellicose” people who, before the missionaries arrived, “cut off the heads” of enemies and “took them as trophies.”

If a child was “born with a defect, they would be immediately killed,” he explained, and in the case of twins, one would be considered “evil and the other good” and so “sometimes they killed the second or killed both.”

But he also made a comparison with the West: “What about the abortions carried out here in civilized countries?” the Carmelite bishop asked, adding that it's “very easy to be horrified at this when certain hospitals (in civilized places) are real slaughterhouses.”

Bishop Santin said he has seen twins and children with defects and so believes the practice is “no longer happening there.”

Bishop Medardo de Jesús Henao Del Río, the apostolic vicar of Mitú, Colombia, told reporters that before missionaries arrived in his diocese in 1914, children with defects were “left to die, eaten by animals or ants.” Then the Church arrived and set up “shelters for these children” and priests started “visiting communities and forming people on these topics.”

They tried to show them, he said, “that there wasn’t an evil spirit that had damaged the child, and so they then stopped carrying out these practices.”

Bishop Del Río said “semi-nomadic groups” also welcome and no longer reject twins or children with Down syndrome, although he recalled the case of a girl with epilepsy and another who had a tumor on her ear where the parents would not let priests visit them.

“We had to report this case,” he said. “We asked where they were but they’d already died,” he added, one of malnutrition, the other “fell into a fire at home.”

Colombian Sister Gloria Liliana Franco Echeverri, the president of the Confederation of Latin American Religious, said atrocities “are all over the world” such as violence against women, human trafficking caused by migration and the sexual exploitation of women, and so no one is free of them. Sister Gloria recalled the religious women who gave their lives to “protect the poor” and became martyrs.

 

Snapshots of Indigenous Life

All three panelists at today’s briefing gave snapshots of life for indigenous peoples in their dioceses and countries. Sister Gloria spoke of the importance of “encounter and caring” so that the Church has a “new face” in dealing with such issues as poverty and migration.

“We have to build bridges, expand relations without so many barriers,” she said. “We have to have this daring fraternity to bear witness to brotherhood.”

Bishop Del Río shared how remote his diocese is, a place only accessible by plane and with few amenities and resources. He explained how a pregnant mother had to perform a Caesarean section on herself but together with her husband miraculously managed to save herself and her child. The bishop also spoke of the destructive effects of multinationals on the region, and how mining areas have caused brain diseases in children because their mothers had drunk polluted water.

On Church relations with the indigenous generally, he said: “We don’t just want to form these communities, but want to understand what they want.” He added, “There are myths and rituals that for them must be accepted in communion with the Church.”

Bishop Santin said he and his priests “try to intensify indigenous pastoral ministry” by walking with them and helping indigenous people to “shape the Amazonian Church.” One way of doing that, he said, is for them to have their own ministers, especially of the Eucharist.

He said he has recently appointed 48 ministers, including eight women, to preach the word of God, though not during the Mass. He also recalled a story of an evangelical who had been Catholic but left the Church because he “wanted to listen to the word of God.”

“We need to change the structure of the Church so it can become more flexible, move forward faster,” Bishop Santin said.

Thursday was the first day of the circoli minori (small groups). According to details released by the Vatican, they will consist of 12 groups divided into languages (two Italian, four Portuguese, five Spanish, and one English/French).

As is customary, each will have a relator and moderator.

Among the moderators for this synod is close papal aide Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who will be part of one of the Spanish language groups. Newly elevated Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the bishops’ conference of the European Union, will be the moderator for the English/French group.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.