RIO DE JANEIRO — Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent pro-democracy voices in Latin America, died in Brazil on Wednesday after a long struggle with lung and kidney problems. He was 95.
Arns’ death was confirmed by the archdiocese of Sao Paulo, where he served from 1970 to 1998. The cardinal became famous for challenging leaders of the brutal military dictatorship of 1964-1985 and for his fight against torture in Latin America.
Arns often talked about democratic values during Mass, protected activists in his churches and led a national anti-torture initiative. Arns also threatened to excommunicate police investigators who refused to provide information on political prisoners.
“Let us praise God for the Franciscan life of Dom Paulo and for his courageous engagement in the defense of human dignity and inalienable rights of each person,” Sao Paulo Archbishop Odilo Scherer said in a statement.
Arns will be buried in Sao Paulo’s central cathedral, where in 1975 he organized one of the most open acts of defiance of Brazil’s dictatorship, praying with other religious leaders and blaming the regime for the assassination of journalist Vladimir Herzog, who had been taken as a political prisoner shortly before.
Officials said Herzog had committed suicide in jail, but Arns rejected that version during Mass, despite the pressure made by tanks and soldiers outside his church.
Conservative members of the church and the military leaders regarded him as a troublemaker.
He recalled a conversation with Gen. Emilio Medici, who told him, “You take care of your church and I will take care of the country.”
Arns also helped victims of political persecution and torture in the rest of South America.
One of his friends was Argentine human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who said Arns saved him twice from the Brazilian dictatorship.
A commission created by Arns at his archdiocese documented many cases of torture and helped later governments pay damages to victims and shame perpetrators of violence.
Arns was sympathetic to the left-leaning Theology of Liberation, a stream of Catholic thought that irritated critics by often merging socialist theory with church doctrine.
Arns’ political links led Pope John Paul II to intervene in his archdiocese, the second biggest in the world after Mexico City, to split his powers.
He lived his last years in silence on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.