St. Barabbas? by Mark Tooley

St. Barabbas?

The New Martyrs of the Religious Left

by Mark Tooley

President Clinton’s clemency for sixteen imprisoned Puerto Rican terrorists last year ignited a political brouhaha. Both Houses of Congress overwhelmingly denounced any early release for the Puerto Rican separatists. A Justice Department report later acknowledged that their release would hamper deterrence against domestic terrorism.

Although largely unreported by the media, the inmates have been a cause célèbre for the Religious Left for some time, as has been Leonard Peltier, an American Indian activist serving time for his murder of two FBI agents.

The same church activists who advocated the amnesty for the Puerto Rican terrorists are now focusing their energies on Peltier’s freedom. Of course, the Religious Left has not and will not gain success on its own. Its alliances with secular left-wing advocacy groups were crucial for the release of the Puerto Ricans and will be crucial for Peltier’s amnesty. But church involvement was crucial for lending a moral legitimacy and fervor to both causes.

Just Like Peter & Paul?

Five years ago I attended a directors’ meeting of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the largest church lobby in Washington, D.C. During the final minutes the directors unanimously approved a resolution calling for the immediate release of sixteen Puerto Rican “political prisoners.” The resolution likened the prisoners to Nelson Mandela, America’s Founding Fathers, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and even Jesus.

“We see in Scripture how some of our greatest spiritual heroes spent time in jail for political reasons,” the resolution intoned, as it noted that “colonialism” (of the sort the United States supposedly practices in Puerto Rico) is a “crime,” as defined by the United Nations.

The sixteen inmates were Puerto Rican separatists whose groups had plotted and perpetrated several years of murderous bombings, robbery, kidnapping, and other mayhem during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most had served with the Armed Forces for National Liberation (Spanish acronym: FALN), while several were affiliated with the Macheteros (the Machete Wielders). One of the prisoners had been on the FBI’s “ten most wanted” list during the 1970s. They received sentences of up to 90 years for their crimes.

In 1996 the governing General Conference of the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church, again without debate, approved a resolution demanding release for the terrorists. The National Council of Churches (NCC), ostensibly representing over 30 denominations and 55 million American church members, followed suit. And an ad in the New York Times appealing for the prisoners’ freedom was signed by dozens of mainline Protestant and Catholic church leaders, including bishops and presiding officers of denominations.

The sixteen inmates have claimed they are prisoners of war incarcerated for advocating a “free and socialist” Puerto Rico that is independent of the United States. The FALN, of which most of the prisoners were a part, was involved in 130 bomb attacks from 1974 to 1983 that killed six people, including a six-year-old, and injured 130 others, mostly in Chicago and New York. The Machete Wielders, to which the remainder of the prisoners belonged, masterminded a $7.1-million Wells Fargo robbery in Connecticut in 1983.

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy ( in Washington, D.C.

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