Pope Francis on Wednesday mourned the deaths of two Jesuits and a sanctuary seeker whose bodies were spirited away by armed men after they were gunned down inside a church in northern Mexico.
The pope, who also belongs to the Jesuit order, expressed sadness and dismay over the killings of men he called his “brothers” in the remote mountains of Chihuahua state.
“So many murders in Mexico. I am close, in affection and prayer, to the Catholic community affected by this tragedy,” he said.
Priests Javier Campos Morales and Joaquin Cesar Mora Salazar were shot dead in the town of Cerocahui on Monday “while trying to defend a man who was seeking refuge,” according to the order also known as the Society of Jesus.
The pursued man, who worked as a tour guide, was also killed.
The three bodies were then placed in the back of a pickup truck by armed men, covered with plastic and taken away, according to Father Luis Gerardo Moro Madrid, head of the order in Mexico.
Madrid said the shooter allegedly told a third priest who ran into the church: “I’m sorry, we’re going to take the bodies.”
“We denounce the murder of our brothers (…) We demand justice and the recovery of the bodies,” he said in a separate statement, adding the men had been killed “in the context of the violence this country is experiencing.”
Experts say Chihuahua is an important transit route for illegal drugs bound for the United States and therefore violently contested between rival trafficking gangs.
More than 340,000 people have been killed in a wave of bloodshed since the government deployed the army to fight drug cartels in 2006.
Father Jorge Atilano Gonzalez, also a Jesuit, told a local television station the priests had attempted to intervene because they knew the assailant, who was from the area.
“He wanted to confess” after the shooting, said Gonzalez, citing the testimony of the third priest. “What we believe is that he was in a state of alcoholism or addiction because of the reaction he had,” he added.
The country’s security secretariat on Tuesday evening said the alleged shooter had already been identified and a manhunt was under way.
– ‘Important social work’
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico condemned the killings, saying the priests had carried out “important social and pastoral work” among the Indigenous Raramuri, or Tarahumara, people.
“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 Fernandez-Maldonado, the UN human rights representative in Mexico.
The Mexican Episcopal Conference also issued a statement Tuesday, calling for a rapid investigation as well as increased security for the country’s clergy.
Earlier in the day, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had confirmed the killings at his daily press conference, conceding several municipalities in Chihuahua state were struggling in the “presence of organized crime.”
It is common for religious leaders in Mexico to act as defenders of their communities and as mediators with criminal gangs operating there.
In states such as Michoacan and Guerrero, some have even entered into dialogue with drug traffickers in a bid to keep the peace in largely poor regions with little government presence.
About 30 priests have been killed in Mexico in the past decade, according to the Centro Catolico Multimedial, a Catholic organization.