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By Charles Lane
Religion News Service

Asuncion, Paraguay – Bishop Fernando Lugo gathered his flock on a cold Saturday morning, and they came — more than 600 mostly poor peasants — to the rural city of Horqueta. Unlike many rallies in this impoverished country, it didn’t take threats or bribes of food and alcohol to get them there.
In a country steeped in corruption and political puppeteering, they traveled as far as 50 miles to hear the “Bishop of the Poor” speak.
After a notice went out on the radio, entire towns packed themselves on the backs of flatbed trucks to make the frigid journey.
He’s not a particularly passionate speaker. Clutching a notebook as if it were a Bible, he often sounds more like the pastor he once was than the politician he might become — as the first bishop ever elected president of a country.
“We have hope for him,” said one woman, Vera Aguello, “hope that he can get us out of this crisis.”
There’s just one problem: It’s unclear whether Lugo even qualifies as a candidate.
The country’s constitution does not allow religious officials to hold office, and neither does the Vatican. Lugo, 56, says he resigned as bishop in 2006. The Vatican, meanwhile, says he cannot simply resign his job — “a service accepted freely and forever.”
And so Lugo’s campaign goes on, stuck in a sort of ecclesiastical and political limbo ahead of the April 2008 elections.
Paraguay has struggled with democracy ever since the end of dictator Alfredo Stroessner’s bloody regime in 1989. Most people here have little confidence in secret ballots, and the best way to ensure financial security is to join the well-oiled political machine of the Colorado party, which has ruled longer than any other political party in the country’s history.
Lugo the politician was born out of these struggles. Beginning in 2004, while he was still bishop of rural San Pedro, peasant groups launched widespread uprisings to protest unequal land distribution and the encroachment of industrial farming.
“The peasant organizations were fighting for their land, they were fighting for social revindication,” Lugo said in an interview. “As part of the church, we walked through this with them in a legal fashion.”
While in San Pedro, Lugo worked closely with many of the peasants.
He nurtured thousands of “Christian base communities,” he said, “that met weekly to reflect on the word of God and the reality.”
Lugo considers himself a practical representative of liberation theology, a theology that was popular throughout South America until Pope John Paul II clamped down in the 1980s. His successor, Benedict XVI, has also lashed out against liberation theology, calling it “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church.”
“When the pope speaks against liberation theology, he speaks against the exaggerations of this theology only, not against the actual theology,” Lugo said. “Particularly regarding the Marxist message of interpreting reality. But he also accepts that there is a part of it which is accepted by the official church.”
In recent years, the Vatican has adamantly opposed members of the clergy holding political office. Accordingly, it has demanded that Lugo cease all political activities. Lugo, for his part, says he resigned from the church and is no longer subject to its laws.
“Real structural change — social revindication — goes through politics, not the church,” he said. Faith and charity, he added, are not enough. “Pope Pius XI said politics is the sublime expression of love, and a love that transforms through politics.”
According to his colleagues, Lugo is above all a compassionate leader who believes very much in helping his countrymen.
“He was never into politics until the land invasions happened,” said the Rev. Silvio Flaitas, a student and friend of Lugo’s. “He always incited other priests to visit his diocese and visit with the poor.”
At times, his critics see this compassion as a fault, citing Lugo’s liberal sympathies with the country’s poor that have raised comparisons between him and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
“Looking at his background, I am worried,” said Hector Cristaldo, who runs Paraguay’s 22,000-strong agribusiness association. Cristaldo blames Lugo for provoking the 2004 land invasions. “I believe his style of leadership is conflict. He is not a person who holds people together.”
Politically, Lugo has stumbled in recent weeks. His opposition coalition fell apart at the prospect of another candidate, former Gen.
Lino Oviedo, joining the race. Lugo formed a new coalition minus the Oviedo supporters.
Pedro Fadul, another Lugo political opponent, sees Lugo’s political inexperience as a liability, and doubts Lugo has the skills to govern a country.
“He is a priest, and (being) the priest has its characteristics. He knows how to listen, but he has some difficulties taking decisions day after day in real life, not in heaven,” Fadul said. “People come with problems that need to be solved today. It’s not enough to bless them and send them to pray.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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