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Fr. Ismael Moreno Coto, SJ (known as “Padre Melo”), at right, with Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Human Rights Activist Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno Coto Brings Honduran Advocacy to the U.S.

By Doris Yu

November 14, 2014 — The 25th anniversary of the El Salvador martyrs — the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter murdered at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in November 1989 — has touched many.

But the martyrs were especially close to Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno Coto, a human rights activist from Honduras, who is visiting Washington, D.C., this weekend for the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. Padre Melo, as he is popularly known, was a student of Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuría and a friend of housekeeper Elba and her daughter Celina, who were killed by the Salvadoran military along with five other Jesuits on Nov. 16, 1989.

Padre Melo is now the director of both the research and advocacy center Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC) and Radio Progreso, which provides grassroots radio programming in Honduras. Since arriving in Washington this week, Padre Melo has brought his advocacy to the U.S. by speaking at a number of events, meeting with lawmakers and sharing his personal experience with a new generation of young adults.

On November 13, Padre Melo and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia discussed the violence and economic conditions driving migration from Honduras, where Kaine served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps from 1980 to 1981. During Padre Melo’s visit, Kaine described his time in Honduras as the most important year of his life.

After meeting with lawmakers, Padre Melo participated in “Violence & Inequality: El Salvador Then & Now,” a panel at Georgetown University exploring the problem of violence and inequality during the time of the martyrs and in the present day. Jesuit Father Matthew Carnes organized and moderated the panel, which included Shaina Aber, policy director for the National Advocacy Office of the Jesuit Conference, and Mark Lagon, former executive director and CEO of the Polaris Project, a nonprofit combating human trafficking. 

Left to right: Mark Lagon, Shaina Aber, Fr. Ismael Moreno Coto, SJ, and Fr. Matthew Carnes, SJ

Twenty-five years after the witness of the martyrs and their deaths, Padre Melo described how they convinced him of the need for Jesuits to occupy two roles: accompanying the poor in their suffering as well as taking seats in the halls of power, asking questions and challenging the roots and causes of poverty.

Following the panel, Padre Melo accepted the “Legacy of the Martyrs” award from the Ignatian Solidarity Network on behalf of his Jesuit ministries, ERIC and Radio Progreso. Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts received a second Legacy of the Martyrs award, in recognition of his advocacy for human-rights policy in El Salvador. McGovern assisted the late Congressman Joseph Moakley in the U.S. Congressional investigation of the murders of the UCA martyrs, and McGovern will visit El Salvador this weekend as part of the delegation of U.S. Jesuits commemorating the martyrs on the anniversary.

Fr. Ismael Moreno Coto, SJ, right, accepts the “Legacy of the Martyrs” award from Chris Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network.

Padre Melo broadcast his acceptance speech live on Radio Progreso, which was temporarily shut down by the military around the time of the June 2009 Honduran coup. The staff has received death threats since the coup, and a Radio Progreso team member was brutally murdered in April 2014.

“I accept this award on behalf of the ERIC and Radio Progreso teams because we must continue to be engaged. We want to accompany our people through communication, through advocacy and analysis,” said Padre Melo. “I am committing myself and the people I work with to the cause of embracing each other, working for peace and looking for a better tomorrow.

“Nothing is more beautiful than envisioning a society in Honduras that is a society for all, including our brothers and sisters in the United States,” he said.

This weekend, Padre Melo will give a keynote speech at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Arlington, Virginia, in hopes of sharing that vision with the younger generation and honoring the martyrs’ legacy.

Learn more about the Teach-In at the Ignatian Solidarity Network website.

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