Pope Francis at his general audience in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square. Photo: Google

By MARK LORENZANA

Pope Francis on Wednesday, June 22, condemned the murders of two Jesuit priests in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, who were gunned down on Monday, June 20, along with a local tour guide inside a church in the municipality of Urique.

“So many killings in Mexico,” Francis said at the end of his general audience, attended by thousands, which takes place every Wednesday in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square, at the feet of St. Peter’s Basilica.

According to Jesuit priest Javier Ávila of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tarahumara, the two murdered priests — Javier Campos Morales and Joaquín César Mora Salazar — were shot dead after a local tour guide, Pedro Heliodoro Palma, was taken by armed men to the San Francisco Javier Parish on Monday so he could “say his final goodbye.” When Palma tried to escape, he was shot and killed.

“One of the priests immediately approached him (Palma) to provide spiritual aid, and while he was doing so, he was also killed,” Ávila said. “Another of the priests wanted to help his fallen colleague and was also shot.”

Francis is also a member of the Society of Jesus, which he joined in 1958. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1969, and from 1973 to 1979 served as the Jesuit provincial superior in Argentina.

“I also express my pain and shock over the killing in Mexico the day before yesterday of two religious brothers of mine, Jesuits,” Francis said.

“I am close in prayer and affection to the Catholic community hit by this tragedy. Once more, I repeat that violence does not resolve problems but increases episodes of suffering.”

The alleged mastermind of the killings, José Noriel Portillo, alias “El Chueco,” purportedly took away the three bodies. Noriel Portillo is linked to the criminal group Los Salazar, which is affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel.

There has been widespread indignation and outrage from both religious and secular groups across Mexico because of the killings. It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of the country’s population identifies as Catholic.

The Society of Jesus in Mexico, in a statement, demanded justice and the return of the bodies.

“We denounce the murder of our brothers. We demand justice and the recovery of the bodies of our brothers (the bodies of the three were located by police late Wednesday), who were taken from the church by armed persons. The situation of violence in the country is worrisome. We plead and pray for the end of violence in Mexico,” the statement said.

The Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) also condemned the murders.

“In the midst of so much death and crime in the country, we publicly condemn this tragedy and demand a prompt investigation and security for the community and all priests in the country,” the CEM said in a statement.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Mexico issued a statement, saying that priests in the country carry out “important social and pastoral work among the indigenous people of the Tarahumara ethnic group.”

“The murder of these two well-known priests reminds us of the situation of extreme violence and vulnerability faced by the communities of the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua,” said Guillermo Fernández-Maldonado, the United Nations human rights representative in Mexico.

Elements of the National Guard and the Mexican Army were deployed in the area after the killings, and have carried out patrols extending to nearby towns, but as of late Wednesday, there had been no arrests.

Aside from Campos Morales and Mora Salazar, there have been five other Catholic priests killed under the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) since he took office in 2018.

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