Warning! This video clip contains disturbing images.
I was in church last weekend when the priest happened to talk about Sister Dorothy Stang - otherwise known as the Angel of the Amazon. Why? Because earlier that week her story had been covered in one of the weekly christian magazines. It was an incredible account of one womans faith and her defiant stand in protecting the Amazon rainforest and the people whose lives depend upon its existence. Although her violent death occured several years ago it was the first I had heard of her story which is why I am sharing it with you today.
Sister Dorothy was originally from Dayton, Ohio, where she attended Julienne High School. It was while she was a student that she decided to become a nun and when she left the school she joined the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Cincinnati. The order, founded in France in the early 18th century, is a proponent of liberation theology and social justice. Its mission statement dedicates the order to "take our stand with poor people especially women and children, in the most abandoned places".
Her beliefs took her to Brazil in the 1960s and it was there - in the vast Para region, which encompasses large tracts of rainforest - that she found her calling, despite the obvious dangers she faced. The stakes could not have been higher. Greenpeace estimates that 90 per cent of the timber in Para is illegally logged and the danger of speaking out against such exploitation could barely have been greater.
And yet this fight appeared to energise the sprightly 74-year-old. Samuel Clements - a student film-maker from Britain who spent the summer of 2003 filming Sister Dorothy's work - said she seemed to become a different, more animated person once she travelled into the jungle to meet with the small farmers and peasants. In addition to fighting to preserve the rainforest she was helping encourage small-scale, sustainable agriculture.
In a recent letter to Mr Clements, she wrote: "Our forest is being overtaken by the others daily ... together we can make a difference."
Mr Clements also believed Sister Dorothy may have had a premonition of the fate that awaited her and yet she still looked for the best in people. "She said once 'Humanity is like a fruit bowl, with all the different fruit - black, white and yellow - so different and yet all part of it'. She had incredible energy even though she was fighting incredible battles," he said.
Sister Dorothy Stang lived among those who wanted her dead and was in the Boa Esperanca settlement when they finally came for her. She faced the hired assassins as she was walking to a meeting to discuss a recent spate of house burnings by ranchers meant to intimidate poor farmers into abandoning their land. “You men are armed," she said. “I am not. The only defense I carry is the Word of God." She began to read from scripture, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The two gunmen listened for a moment, took a few steps back, and fired. The 74-year-old Stang died quickly from six shots to the head and chest. Her body was found face down in the mud, blood staining the back of her white blouse.
The two men travelling with her escaped unhurt.
The murder of Sister Dorothy triggered waves of outrage among environmental and human rights activists who say she dedicated her life to helping the area's poor, landless peasants and confronting the businesses that see the rainforest only as a resource to be plundered and which have already destroyed 20 per cent of its 1.6 million square miles.
Sister Dorothy's supporters say there is little doubt as to who was responsible. While the local people called her Dora or "the angel of the Trans-Amazonian", loggers and other opponents called her a "terrorist" and accused of supplying guns to the peasants. The Pastoral Land Commission of the Roman Catholic Church, which she worked for, said in a statement: "The hatred of ranchers and loggers respects nothing. The reprehensible murder of our sister brings back to us memories of a past that we had thought was closed."
From those who worked with the nun, there were promises that the effort she had undertaken would continue despite her death. Mariana Silva, president of Brazil's National Institute for Settlement and Agrarian Reform said: "We won't step back even one millimetre from our projects in Para because of this. They want to intimidate us but they won't succeed."
We pray that her death was not in vain.
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