Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, 18 February (ENI)—Prayers and hymns, rather than the sound of US Navy aircraft launching test missiles, have in recent months dominated the US Navy bombing range on this small Caribbean island east of Puerto Rico.

The prayers and hymns come from two camps set up by Puerto Rican Christians who are risking arrest for breaking the Navy's ban which forbids civilian entry to the bombing range. The protesters - including union members, political activists and students who have set up 12 other camps - are demanding that the Navy vacate the island. Six decades ago the Navy took over two-thirds of the island which it has since used for its military exercises.

The bombing range has long been a cause of friction for the 9000 residents of Vieques and for many Puerto Ricans, but opposition to it grew rapidly last April when a bomb went astray, killing a civilian security guard. Islanders and supporters from Puerto Rico moved onto the bombing range, establishing protest camps and forcing the Navy to cancel military maneuvers. For ten months, Vieques has been free of war games.

Protesters say they are not afraid of the consequences of their action. "It would make things even clearer for the Navy to drag us out of here," said Enrique Mercado, a Methodist pastor who is originally from Vieques. "The world would see that those who preach democracy are the first ones who squash it," he said, referring to the US government.

Mercado recently spent three days living in an "evangelical obedience camp", established on the bombing range early in November and sponsored by the Evangelical Council of Puerto Rico.

The Roman Catholic diocese of Caguas, of which Vieques is part, built the second church-sponsored camp early this month. It consists of two tents and a one-room wooden structure.

On 13 February Protestant and Catholic protesters met for a worship service in a small wooden chapel constructed on the bombing range. As participants hugged each other during the sign of peace at the end of the liturgy, a US Navy helicopter flew low overhead, videotaping the scene.

According to Feliciano Rodriguez, a Catholic priest in Caguas who is overseeing the Catholic protest, more than 300 people have asked to take part, but the diocese has only been able to accept a third of the requests. Participants are trained in non-violence and fully briefed on church teachings.

"Civil disobedience for us means discipline and training, or else it becomes simple protest," Rodriguez said. "People know we're there to pray and work for peace."

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If the US government decided to try to regain control of the bombing range, Rodriguez said, the church-sponsored protesters would not resist arrest. More would arrive to take the place ofthose arrested, unless the navy prevented them from arriving by sea.

According to some reports, Catholic Bishop of Caguas, Alvaro Corrada del Rio, and the Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Gonzalez, are ready to be arrested if the navy tries to remove protesters by force. Organisers from the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico are making plans to fly their bishop, Juan Vera, into Vieques in case other transportation links are cut.

Not all demonstrators will go quietly. Several Puerto Rican veterans of the Vietnam war are preparing to hide out on this small, mountainous island if the navy tries to remove all protesters. The war veterans have taken possession of two navy trucks which they use to transport building materials and food in the restricted zone.

Church anger at the bombing range extends to some conservative groups which normally avoid political protest. According to Angel Luis Gutierrez, a Baptist pastor, the church in Puerto Rico "has the responsibility of saving the US Navy because it finds itself in sin. The church has to say to the navy what Our Lord said to the woman caught in adultery: 'Go and sin no more'."

Pedro Rossello, the governor of Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth linked to the United States, announced last year that he would energetically oppose the resumption of bombing on Vieques. However, he later agreed to a deal with the Clinton administration allowing the Navy to remain, but giving Vieques residents the right to vote in three years on the navy's presence.

At a press conference in Washington on 16 February, President Bill Clinton described the agreement as "a perfectly reasonable compromise".

But church leaders in Puerto Rico disagree.

"This is not a matter that is subject to negotiation. This is a matter of telling the navy to get the hell out of here. It's a simple matter of justice," Eunice Santana, a Disciples of Christ pastor and a former president of the World Council of Churches, told ENI.

Rossello struck back at the church leaders on 9 February by calling on Christians to practise "religious disobedience". Rossello said the faithful should ignore the appeals of their church leaders to oppose the navy.

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"Church leaders have stepped out of their environment, they've exceeded their authority and are assuming roles in our democratic society that are delegated through popular vote," said Rossello. "None of them have been elected by the people. Therefore, none of the faithful have to follow their orders in affairs like this which affect the whole of society and not just the church."

Archbishop Gonzalez claimed Rossello's comments emerged from "a strategy to destabilise the public consensus in favour of the human rights of the Viequenses. As a consequence, the navy gains time in its attempt to retain the island of Vieques as a zone for military experimentation."

Church leaders are planning a "march for peace" in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan on 21 February. The silent march, in which participants will carry white flags, has attracted calls for participation from many sectors of Puerto Rican society, including leading members of Rossello's own political party.

According to Father Rodriguez, if a large crowd attends the march, "the navy will have to start looking for alternatives and we'll see the resumption of negotiations about the future of Vieques. If not many people show up, then we may see the people in the resistance camps get arrested very soon."

Whatever the turnout, the march highlights the fact that Puerto Rican churches have become the most important component in the campaign to rid Vieques of the Navy.

Robert Rabin, a member of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, said the two church-sponsored resistance camps "are right now the most important weapon that the people of Vieques have against the military plans to resume bombing. If it had not been for those two camps being set up, the navy might have already come in and arrested the small number of other people … Yet there are now Catholic priests and Methodist and Baptist ministers, men and women, out there on the bombing range. That has created a very difficult situation for the US government and navy. It's going to be very difficult for [US Attorney General] Janet Reno to sign an order for the arrest of a bishop or archbishop."

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