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From Brazil to Angola, not content to accept injustice

An interview with human rights pioneer Charles Harper

July 15, 2011

GENEVA

Democracy was already in a turbulent state in 1933 when Charles R. Harper was born in Brazil.

A revolution in 1930 precipitated reforms seen to make the army even more of a tool of Brazil’s central government and its civilian leaders.

Around the time of his birth and early years, political times were uncertain in South America’s biggest country, but in 1964 it would turn into a full-blown military dictatorship.

As an American-Brazilian, Harper later became a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister working and campaigning for justice all over the world. Some of the details of his justice work for his native country and other Portuguese-speaking countries such as Angola and Cape Verde, then colonies, have recently come to light.

“We were ‘mish kids’ and my time there was to catch me a virus called working for justice,” Harper told the Presbyterian News Service, “and going to live in different parts of the world,” serving the Presbyterian Church and the ecumenical community.

“I spent my first 17 year in Brazil, attending both Portuguese and English-language schools,” Harper said from his home between Nimes and Avignon in the south of France, where he has retired to slow down a little after a lifetime of working on justice issues.

Harper’s parents were Presbyterian missionaries who went to Brazil in 1926.

He completed his schooling in the United States, attending the College of Wooster in Ohio and San Franciscan Theological Seminary, which has bestowed a hefty share of social justice activists. He also completed a master’s degree in political studies at the University of California.

Before venturing abroad again, Harper was to serve in Tracy, California in Redwoods Presbytery as an assistant pastor. He also served 18 months in New York City Presbytery “and I still feel much attached to my U.S. presbyteries,” he said.

Some of the work, in which he played a key role, relating to the documentation of nefarious actions during the 21 years under military dictatorship form 1964-1985 in Brazil, was publicly released to authorities there this month.

“The files in question were extensive and highly detailed accounts of every person abducted, tortured, interrogated and killed by the security forces. Brazilian army officers were obsessive record keepers,” says Harper.

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, Brazilian Lutheran leader the Rev. Walter Altmann, the moderator of the WCC’s central committee, and other Christian leaders on June 14 delivered to Brazil’s public prosecutors three crates of archival records.

There they paid strong tribute to Harper and his childhood friend and fellow pastor the Rev. Jaime Wright other church workers, as well as Roman Catholic leaders who collaborated on retrieving and archiving the information.

The archives contained copies of the WCC’s deposit of evidence recording atrocities committed during the two decades of military rule in the second part of the 20th century.

Harper was invited, but unable to attend and dispatched his granddaughter Nina, who lives in Brazil with her parents.

The formal transfer took place at the Public Prosecution Office in São Paulo before government officials and church leaders, including two representatives of ecumenical organizations among those tortured by the military.

“Brazilians can now know what went on while they lived under military rule. This is an important part of the truth process,” Harper told PNS. “The entire amount of documents is more than one million pages.”

Some of the documents were saved in institutions in the United States and others in WCC’s archives in Geneva.

“Those who were tortured are all now white-haired people like me. The Brazilian people have not had chance to know their full history.... These documents are of great pedagogical value,” he recounted.

Harper, served from 1973 to 1992 as coordinator of the WCC program on human rights in Latin America, playing a key role in gathering and preservation of the Brazilian documentation. He also worked on justice projects for people from then Portuguese colonies in Africa during the early 1970s.

His account of the role of churches accompanying movements that confronted dictatorships in what became known as the “dirty wars” of the time is documented in his book, O Acompanhamento: Ecumenical Action for Human Rights in Latin America 1970-1990 (WCC Publications, 2006). In it he tells the stories of Christian resistance in Brazil and six neighboring countries.

After 1945 there was a period of redemocratization of the country with the adoption of a new Constitution but a coup produced the military government in Brazil from March 31, 1964 to March 15, 1985, when civilian José Sarney took office as president.

The Geneva archival documents are being examined by the public prosecutor’s staff and then will be entrusted to the Brazilian attorney general.

In an account of that era Harper has written, “In September 1973 Jaime Wright answered the telephone in his office in São Paulo, Brazil, and felt his world cave in. ‘Êle caíu’ (‘He’s been detained’)  the voice at the other end said. Then the line went dead.”

Jaime Wright had, like Harper, been a “mish kid.” His parents went to Brazil at the same time as Harper’s.

The person detained was Jaime’s younger brother, Paulo Stuart Wright. As a student he was a leader in the Student Christian Movement and later was elected a lawmaker in the southern state of Santa Catarina during the early 1960s.  Paulo was stripped of his position when the military seized power on April 1, 1964.

“He fled the country but returned clandestinely and for nine years organized peasant cooperatives and rural networks when he was picked up by the military, tortured and made to ‘disappear’,” wrote Harper.

Paulo Wright’s body was never recovered and years later Jaime Wright found out about the grisly details of his brother’s torture and murder.

“These were contained in one of the files of legal proceedings carried out in Brazil’s military courts over the period 1964 to 1979. Thousands of such files were retrieved from the army archives under provisions of an amnesty,” said Harper.

These were secretly copied and catalogued and became a parallel record of the military authorities’ own torture archives.

Harper’s work in the field of social justice took him to France and Algeria, shortly after its independence, working on reconstruction after its bitter independence war.

Around the time he worked for the WCC in Geneva he married a German woman and his son was born in Munich. His daughter lives in London and is married to a Briton. As a “mish family” their diaspora has grown.

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