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May 4, 2000         GC-016

Methodist officials protest U.S. action in Vieques

CLEVELAND (UMNS) — United Methodist bishops, the denomination’s global missions agency and its social action arm criticized U.S. agents’ arrest of nonviolent protesters — including a Methodist bishop — May 4 on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops, church agency executives, and leaders of autonomous Methodist bodies throughout Latin America voiced their opposition in Cleveland, during the quadrennial legislative session of the 9.6 million-member, worldwide United Methodist Church.

“We are disappointed that the U.S. government chose this course of action rather than continuing negotiations (with Vieques), and we stand in solidarity with the people arrested and the citizens of Vieques,” said Bishop Charlene Kammerer of Charlotte, N.C., at a press conference.

"We ask that United Methodists and all people of conscience continue responding to God’s call for justice until every single one of the 33,000 acres of the island now occupied by a hostile U.S. military presence is returned, bomb-free, to the people of Vieques,” the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries said in a statement that was read at the press conference.

According to news reports, Bishop Juan Vera Mendez of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico was among the demonstrators arrested before dawn at a U.S. military bombing range on the island. Vera was among some 300 people who had encamped at the range and refused to leave.

Victor Ortiz, a layman from the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico and colleague of Vera’s, said the bishop had been released from custody several hours after his arrest. “The religious community of Puerto Rico and Vieques has been very visible in these protests,” Ortiz reported.

United Methodist leaders were arranging legal assistance for Vera and other protesters, Ortiz added.

The U.S. military range at Vieques has been a flash point of political unrest and protest for nearly a year, ignited after a bombing accident in April 1999 that killed civilian security guard David Rodriguez. Methodist leaders from the United States and Latin America have called for U.S. withdrawal from the small island (population 9,500), saying continued military action threatens the health, well-being and human rights of citizens there.           

A Council of Bishops delegation to Vieques last year observed firsthand “the conditions of poverty, pollution and other ecological damage to the island” resulting from “60 years of bombing, strafing and ground maneuvers by the U.S. Navy” and other NATO forces, said Bishop Felton E. May, speaking for the delegation. May leads the church’s Washington Area. 

Church leaders said Vera planned to attend the United Methodist assembly next week and would speak on the unrest in Vieques. The General Conference runs through May 12. Meanwhile, bishops and other church officials planned to present their concerns in writing to the White House.

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                                                            --M. Garlinda Burton

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