Former Guatemalan soldier comes out of hiding in church.

Sergio Loreto Garcia shed his false identity and his secret life in a Toronto church basement yesterday and appealed to Immigration Minister Judy Sgro to let him stay in Canada and disregard allegations that he committed war crimes in his native Guatemala.

For the past three months, the 39-year-old has been living under the name of Mario in the Hispanic Anglican church of San Lorenzo in the city's north end. He disappeared on Sept. 24 after failing to show up at Montreal's Trudeau airport to be deported.

As Mario, living in San Lorenzo's basement, he was the gentle, soft-spoken helper working with the parish priest, Rev. Hernan Astidillo, to organize a food bank and help build and operate a Spanish-language radio station.

"I gave him many responsibilities," Mr. Astidillo said. "He is a man with a pure heart. He is not a man with any bad intentions. He won the heart of my people."

The priest said that, at one point, when some members of Ontario's Guatemalan community learned Mr. Loreto's whereabouts, they confronted him in the church parking lot and told him: "We know who you are, and we are going to make justice in our own hands. When you go back to Guatemala, you will be killed."

The Canadian Auto Workers union, which has championed his case, recommended he come out of hiding to force the Immigration Minister to respond to new documents that indicate Mr. Loreto was neither in Guatemala nor in the military during the years in the 1980s when he was alleged to have been in the army reserve, detaining people and driving them to a base where they were tortured or killed.

CAW national staff member Steve Watson said the documentation was handed to Ms. Sgro's staff on Dec. 1, and the minister promised a reply within two weeks. "That was three fortnights ago, and not a word," Mr. Watson said.

Calls to Ms. Sgro's office were not returned. An Immigration spokesman in Montreal said the department had not been aware where Mr. Loreto was hiding and, in any event, would not comment on individual cases.

Mr. Loreto broke into tears during mass at the church last Friday when Mr. Astidillo had him stand at the altar and confess his real identity. A camera crew from Vision-TV's 360 Vision current-affairs show recorded his speech and the applause from members of the congregation. The documentary was aired last night and will be rebroadcast tonight.

The CAW scheduled a press conference that Mr. Loreto will attend at the church this morning. He will be reunited with his wife, Carmen, and three children, all Canadians, whom he has not seen since he left Montreal where the family lives.

Mr. Loreto came to Canada in 1987. He told a refugee board hearing five years later that he was merely a lowly soldier, forced on penalty of being killed or tortured himself to round up people and drive them to the military base. The board decided he had played a bigger role and rejected his refugee claim. He lost appeals and Ms. Sgro refused to review his case.

After he went into hiding, he told 360 Vision, which has closely followed his case, that he'd told a lie about being in the army so he could claim that he'd fled to Canada from military punishment.

Some in the refugee-assistance community and the Anglican hierarchy have questioned whether Mr. Loreto is a proper candidate for church sanctuary. Canada's Christian churches more or less agreed that sanctuary would be offered only to those whose lives would be in danger if they were returned home, a risk that has not been established in Mr. Loreto's case.

[Source: The Globe and Mailm Toronto, Can, 13Jan05]

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