The Cross is part and parcel of every Christian vocation. For each Christian, the sharing in the Cross of Christ takes on a different form. For some, the identification with Christ’s sufferings reaches the point of giving their lives as in the case of those Comboni Missionaries who wished to remain faithful to their missionary vocation ‘until death’ as taught by their Father and Founder, St. Daniel Comboni.
The following excerpt is from Supreme Witness: Comboni Missionaries Killed in the Line of Duty, an account of the lives of 25 Comboni Missionary priests, brothers, and sisters who died in the service of the Gospel in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Brazil and Mexico. You can find the book online here.
Father Ezekiel Ramin — Martyr of Charity in the Amazon
As the old jeep moved along the narrow dirt-track road through the Amazonian forest, the sunlight streamed down through the thick undergrowth. Some weeks before a group of landless farmers had occupied land on one of the largest land-holdings in the area. The stand-off at ‘Katuva Ranch’ was potentially very dangerous indeed. Father Ezekiel knew that this could be the spark leading to an outbreak of widespread armed conflict between the landless farmers and the ranchers around Aripuanã: violence that would lead to many unnecessary deaths, and see the farmers by far the worse off.
In the mid-1980s, the area around the town of Aripuanã, on the border between the States of Rondônia and Mato Grosso do Sul, had become a ‘hotbed’ of tension between large landowners, who controlled most of the available arable land in the region, and local landless peasant farmers. Many farmers had been driven off the land they were cultivating by powerful business interests in order to make way for the large-scale raising of cattle for the export of meat to Europe, North America and the Far East. While much of this land was effectively ‘underutilized,’ tens of thousands of poverty-stricken farmers remained without any access to a piece of land that they could cultivate.
Justice to be achieved by peaceful means
Father Ezekiel was responsible, on behalf of the Community in the Mission of Cacoal, for the pastoral care of the Faithful in and around Aripuanã. He visited the area around the town on July 22nd/23rd 1985 with Adilio de Souza, the President of the local ‘Confederation of Trade Unions,’ in order to encourage the farmers to avoid confrontation with the security guards employed by the ranchers and to seek peaceful solutions to land disputes. In one of the visits he met the wives of the farmers who had illegally settled on uncultivated land at ‘Katuva Ranch.’ They pleaded with him to go and convince their husbands to leave and thereby avoid unnecessary bloodshed. The farmers had in fact already been threatened and intimidated by armed guards in the employ of ‘Katuva Ranch.’ The women said that Father Ezekiel was the only one who had the moral authority to convince their husbands to vacate the land and wait for more opportune times.
It was too late in the day to meet with the illegal settlers at ‘Katuva Ranch.’ Father Ezekiel decided to return to the Mission in Cacoal (about seventy miles away) for the night and set out again for Aripuanã with Adilio de Souza early next morning. At 11:00 a.m. they arrived at the occupied land on ‘Katuva Ranch’ to find a dozen farmers gathered together, and a group of armed guards hired by the ranchowners stationed close by. Advising the settlers to avoid all provocation and to steer clear of violence, Father Ezekiel told them: “Justice is achieved by peaceful means, not with weapons. If you take up arms, you will come off worse, because the Ranchers are far more powerful. And that is what their pistoleros (gunmen or hired killers) actually want, so that they can kill you under the pretext of legitimate self-defense.”
Convinced that they had persuaded the farmers to choose a peaceful and non-violent resolution of their dispute with the owners of ‘Katuva Ranch,’ Father Ezekiel and Adilio set out for Aripuanã. As they headed off, the armed guards hired by the ranch-owners drove on ahead of them in an off-road vehicle. After a few miles, on a curve in the road, Father Ezekiel and Adilio found their way was blocked by the guards’ vehicle parked right across the road. As Father Ezekiel pulled up short in the jeep, the guards immediately began shooting and aiming all their fire in his direction, at which point he and Adilio jumped out of different sides of the vehicle. Father Ezekiel then shouted, “I am a priest! Let’s talk.” There was no mercy. As he tried to run to the near-by forest he was shot seventy-two times. The pistoleros were leaving nothing to chance. It was just after midday on Wednesday July 24, 1985.
“If my life is for you, my death too will be for you”
Although wounded in the attack, Adilio managed to escape into the dense forest and after hours of wandering, came across three of the peasant farmers who had been at the meeting with Father Ezekiel and him earlier that day. Adilio and the farmers eventually found a driver of a pickup who was willing to take them all to the Mission in Cacoal. The group only reached the Mission at one o’clock in the morning when they informed the Confrères of the ambush. The Confrères immediately left to inform the Local Bishop and the police, but the police would not agree to escort them to the site of the shooting until after sunrise.
Ezekiel was found lying fifty yards from his vehicle, his body riddled with bullets and shotgun pellets, many fired at close range. His arms were spread like Christ on the Cross. None of his belongings had been taken, and the only thing missing from among Father Ezekiel’s personal effects was the wooden cross that he always wore around his neck. His watch was still on his wrist; his wallet and house keys still in his pocket; his personal documents and camera still in the vehicle; and the keys of the vehicle were still in the ignition. In court documents one of the pistoleros subsequently admitted to ripping the cross off the chest of Father Ezekiel during the execution. The purpose of the attack was evidently just to murder him.
Father Ezekiel had preached only a few months before at Sunday Mass on February 17, 1985 in Cacoal: “I love you all and I love justice. Let us not condone violence, even if we are treated violently. I myself have received death threats. If my life is for you, my death too will be for you.”
A Life of Commitment: love is stronger than death
Ezekiel was born in Padua, a city in the North of Italy, on February 9, 1953 to Amirabile and Mario Ramin, the fourth of six children. While in High School Ezekiel joined the ‘Open Arms’ Association in Padua and participated in their summer ‘Work Camps’ that financed micro-projects in the South of the world through the collection and recycling of waste paper and cardboard, glass, metal and second-hand clothes. After completing High School in 1972, Ezekiel surprised his parents, family and friends, by announcing that he was leaving to join the Postulancy of the Comboni Missionaries in Florence to begin a journey that he hoped would lead him to the priesthood. In Florence he undertook his studies in philosophy and entered the Novitiate in Venegono two years later. Ezekiel took his First Vows on June 5, 1976 and was then sent to England to learn English in view of being assigned to the Scholasticate of the Comboni Missionaries in Kampala for his theological studies. Due to the increasingly precarious security situation in Uganda at the time, it was decided to send Ezekiel to the Scholasticate in Chicago where he studied at the Chicago Theological Union, and he was ordained a priest four years later in his home Parish of St. Joseph in Padua on September 29, 1980. After three years working in Italy, Father Ezekiel went to Lisbon to learn Portuguese and on January 24, 1984 left for Brazil, where he was assigned to the Mission of Cacoal in the Diocese of Ji-Paraná in Rondônia, a State in the Northeast of the country.
It did not take long for Father Ezekiel to become aware of the plight of the poor in Brazil, and particularly that of the struggle of farmers who had been driven off their land in order to make way for the large-scale raising of cattle for meat exports abroad. In a letter to a friend in Padua, Father Ezekiel wrote: “All around me people are destitute while rich landowners increase their already vast land-holdings by encroaching ever further into the Amazon Rainforest. The Indios (at the time more than half of the indigenous peoples of Brazil lived in Rondônia) are being driven out from the territories reserved for them under Federal Law and their ancestral lands are being systematically stolen from them while the Authorities just stand idly by. The police do not uphold the laws of the country and simply protect the very wealthy and powerful. My eyes find it hard at times to see the presence of God in the midst of such injustice and unnecessary suffering. Yet I know that the Cross of Christ, the solidarity of God with man, shows the way He wants to end this tragedy, not by force or dominion but by love. Christ preached and lived this in his own life and death. The fear of death did not make him abandon his project of love. Love is stronger than death.” The commitment of Father Ezekiel to those suffering injustice and poverty brought him into conflict with the powerful landowners and with the Authorities in Rondônia and Mato Grosso do Sul. He was killed at only thirty-two years of age and five years after his Ordination. Only two of the assassins were subsequently condemned, to twenty-four and twenty-five years in prison respectively, for the slaying.
Nearly forty years have passed since the death of Father Ezekiel, but the situation in Rondônia unfortunately remains much the same. The Authorities do not appear to have any appetite for much-needed agrarian reform. The landowners, who account for less than one per cent of the population, still hold nearly half of all the arable land in Rondônia, which in the main is given over to the largescale raising of cattle for export, while some five million poverty-stricken peasants remain without land. It must be said that the peasants too often resort to the deforestation of the rainforest in order to gain land on which to settle, which in turn brings them into conflict with the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. It is a vicious cycle of destruction and violence. According to the ‘Pastoral Land Commission’ of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference nearly half of the six hundred and twenty people murdered in land-related conflicts in the country from 2003 until 2017 were living in the States of Mato Grosso do Sul and Rondônia.
On April 9, 2016, the process for the beatification of Father Ezekiel Ramin was opened in the Diocese of Ji-Paraná and in the Diocese of Padua.