Jaime Larrinaga

God or Country

When the Rev. Jaime Larrinaga, who served the Basque village of Maruri near Bilbao for 36 years, spoke out against nationalist violence, he found himself the victim of the culture of fear that has silenced many other local critics of the militant group ETA and its political arm, Batasuna.

Soon, parishioners had stopped attending Larrinaga’s Masses or avoided him on the street. The local mayor accused him of nostalgia for former dictator Francisco Franco, under whose regime Basque autonomy was denied. Larrinaga was forced to seek protection from a bodyguard provided by Spain’s Ministry of the Interior. After Larrinaga’s name showed up on an ETA hit list, Larrinaga had had enough. In August, he celebrated his last Mass.

Throughout his career, Larrinaga, 62, had been a critic of the ETA and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). He accused the latter of complicity in violence of the former because of the PNV’s unwillingness to condemn terrorism. In 1999, Larrinaga helped to establish Foro El Salvador, an organization of nonnationalist priests, nonbelievers, and intellectuals, in the Basque country. “We chose this name because of the experience of the people of the republic of El Salvador,” Larrinaga said in an online forum in Madrid’s El País. “The El Salvador Forum also denounces the hegemony of nationalism within the Basque church. In this way, we demand as priests, and as part of the church, that the first thing the ETA must do is to put down its weapons and ask forgiveness.”

In February 2000, nationalist members of Maruri’s town council attacked Larrinaga, accusing him of  “confusing religion with socio-politics,” of 
“deepening social tensions,” and of “not behaving according to the values of tolerance and respect that the Basque church accepts and defends” (El Mundo, Madrid). The situation became worse, Larrinaga said, after he voiced support for the banning of Batasuna in 2002. The town’s mayor, Joseba Alzaga, sent a letter to every home in the village, saying Larrinaga exhibited “nostalgia for General Franco.” According to the priest, this charge effectively put him on the ETA hit list.

During his final sermon, according to London’s Guardian, Larrinaga told the faithful: “I have defined myself as an opponent of terrorism, and that is why I have been persecuted.” Privately, some villagers expressed support for the departing priest. Others claimed that he had improperly mixed religion and politics and had served as a toady of Prime Minister José María Aznar.

Larrinaga plans to take a year’s sabbatical to travel and study. He will serve in another church, the location of which he wouldn’t reveal, in the Basque region.