Well may President Alan García be thinking along the same lines as Britain’s Henry II (1133-89) when he, Henry, sent his underlings in to get rid of Thomas a Becket, the (troublesome) archbishop of Canterbury.

Last month, García’s interior minister ordered the expulsion from Peru of Brother Paul McAuley, not strictly speaking a priest but a British missionary, who has long worked ministering to indigenous poor in and around Iquitos in the Amazon jungle. McAuley was accused of instigating social protest in the Amazon, and therefore of having violated the rules governing foreigners resident in the country.
Brother Paul was swift to respond by appealing the decision. He successfully applied to the judicial authorities in Iquitos for a stay of execution on his deportation. His lawyers were from the three vicariates that operate in the province of Maynas, Loreto. The interior ministry, in turn, has sought to have the appeal quashed.

McAuley, who is 62 and came originally from Portsmouth, is one of many members of religious orders who have made Peru his home. He belongs to the Salesians, a teaching order. He has worked in the Amazon region for most of the last twenty years. Prior to that, he established a school in the poor suburbs of Lima. He has received an MBE from the Queen for his services to the poor in Peru.

For much of the time he has spent in Iquitos, Brother Paul has been actively involved in helping communities of indigenous peoples whose livelihoods have been marred by the contamination of rivers by oil production. As in other Latin American countries, oil companies have not concerned themselves about containing oil spills in remote rural areas. Indigenous groups have become increasingly incensed about the authorities’ disregard for their interests.

The García government has made clear the key priority it gives to bringing in foreign oil and mining companies to tap Peru’s natural wealth. Recently, García refused to sign a bill, approved in Congress that would have given indigenous peoples the right to be consulted before concessions are offered to extractive companies. García has stridently attacked those, including what he called ‘false Christs’, who he considers to be standing in the way of Peru’s economic ‘progress’.

And, of course, McAuley is not alone. There are many priests who have actively supported those who they see as serving the poor and powerless, and who have been in the government’s firing line. An Italian priest, Mario Bartolini, was accused of instigating rebellion last year at the time of the Bagua protests, in which at least 30 people lost their lives.

Three other priests are also being charged with instigating sedition, but as naturalised citizens cannot be expelled. They include Daniel Turley, an Augustinian priest born in Chicago who is now Bishop of Chulucanas. Turley was actively involved in the dispute over the Rio Blanco mining project in Piura. He has received numerous death threats. Also accused are José Luís Astigarraga, Bishop of Yurimaguas, a Basque, and Francisco Muguiro, a Spanish Jesuit who is the vicar general of Jaén, Cajamarca.

There is a long tradition of priests involving themselves to defend the congregations with which they work. Peru was the country that gave birth to Liberation Theology back in the 1970s and this tradition lingers on despite hostility from the Catholic Church hierarchy. It is unlikely that the government would have ordered Brother Paul’s expulsion without first consulting with the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima (and member of Opus Dei), Juan Luis Cipriani.

Following his deportation order, McAuley told a journalist from Britain’s Channel Four that he would adhere to the decision of the Peruvian courts. “If I have to go, I’ll get carried out (…) I won’t resist because I respect Peruvian law, but I won’t have the energy to take any steps to walk. That would be to betray these people.”

As with the case of Thomas a Becket, García may live to regret intimidating the priesthood. Henry II was ex-communicated and then obliged to do humiliating penance. García may not feel such remorse, but he may come to the conclusion that the costs of this sort of policy outweigh the benefits.