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Monument to Costa Rica’s Most Prominent Zionist Catholic Priest May Be Forced to Move

February 17, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

This town’s monument to Father Benjamin Nunez, one of Latin America’s leading Catholic Zionists, has been put in storage, and the local government make no secret of its desire to keep the statue away from its original home in a public park. The mayor of this suburban town, seven miles northeast of the capital, San Jose, said a better place to keep the statue — a combination of a bronze bust and an abstract sheet metal structure by a well-known local artist, Edgar Zuniga — is in the enclosed garden of the town’s church.

Mayor Rolando Mendez added that a proposal to place the monument in the church garden will be ready in the coming weeks.

The proposal would need the approval of the local Jewish community, which donated approximately $20,000 to build the monument six years ago. It also would need the approval of its new host, the local church.

The monument, which once stood in the town’s central plaza, close to the Gothic-style church Nunez led for a decade, was removed from its pedestal last year when the plaza was remodeled.

Mendez said rust and graffiti have been removed from the monument. If the monument is returned to the plaza it will be a target for vandals, and will be safer in an enclosed space, he said.

If the church and the Jewish community don’t approve the move, the monument “will be placed back where it was, but we assume no responsibility for the damages that it could suffer,” the mayor said. “I think that if it’s left in its original place, thieves are going to steal the bust.”

Neither the priest’s family nor the Jewish leaders who led the fund-raising drive find that waiver of municipal responsibility acceptable.

“It seems absurd to me” for the mayor “to say he is not capable of confronting vandals,” said Rodrigo Carreras, Costa Rica’s ambassador to Nicaragua — and one of two sons of Nunez, the priest depicted in the statue. “It reflects a lack of capability on the part of the officials.”

Carreras said he agrees the monument should be displayed in a safe place, but added, “It’s a work of art that belongs to Coronado.”

Keeping it safe “is the responsibility of the municipality,” he said.

“I would prefer it stay where it was,” said Enrique Weisleder, who was president of the 2,500-member Orthodox Israeli-Zionist Center, the country’s main synagogue, when the campaign to raise money for the monument was underway. Weisleder led the fund-raising effort and helped pick the site for the monument.

But neither Weisleder nor the center’s president, Gustavo Priefer, knew that the statue had been moved, and neither knew of the mayor’s plan for it. The vast majority of the country’s Jews live in San Jose’s western suburbs, an hour’s drive from this mountain town.

Nunez, who died in 1994 at 79, was one of the country’s most visible Catholic figures. In 1947, he cast the deciding vote in the U.N. General Assembly on the resolution that led to the creation of Israel.

He later served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel and was instrumental in getting his country to move its embassy to Jerusalem in 1982. Costa Rica is one of just two countries to keep its embassies in Israel’s capital — many countries don’t accept Israel’s claim to the city — and there is a street there named after Nunez.

The relationship between the Jewish community and the church in Costa Rica often has been strained, but the Jewish community loved Nunez because of his staunch support for Israel.

Alexander Ben-Zvi, Israel’s ambassador to Costa Rica, is following the situation closely. Moving the statue would be appropriate “if it’s placed in a good place with dignity,” he said.

There are logical reasons for a monument to Nunez to be placed in the church garden. The priest is buried there; earth from Jerusalem was flown in and buried in his coffin with him.

The tomb at first was accessible to the public, but in 1998, after vandals defaced the interior of the church, a fence was built to protect it.

Nunez took controversial stands in Costa Rican politics throughout his career. But in Coronado, where Nunez helped oversee construction of a new church building — and where he helped ensure that his Liberation Party won all municipal elections between 1950 and 1990 — he is still revered.

Mayor Mendez, however, belongs to Liberation’s main opponent, the Social Christian Unity Party.

Mendez, who remembers meeting Nunez as a child, denies that politics has anything to do with the decision to move the monument.

No matter where the monument ends up, the local Jewish community hasn’t forgotten Nunez. Weisleder calls him someone “very dear to us,” and Ben-Zvi says that the priest remains “a very, very special friend of Israel.”

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