LIMA, Peru—The more than 500 international journalists waiting outside the besieged house of Japanese Ambassador Morihisha Aoki here on Christmas Day were surprised when a thin figure in a black cassock and sash walked quickly through security lines. He quickly disappeared into the mansion where, at press time, more than 70 hostages were being held by revolutionaries from the Marxist guerrilla “Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru” (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement), known as MRTA.

During the following days, Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Ayacucho frequently entered and left the Japanese embassy. Journalists became accustomed to either his brusque “no comment” to their questions or his short homilies about the ethics and responsibilities of journalism.

Archbishop Cipriani has become one of the key figures working to resolve the hostage crisis that began Dec. 17 when a group of some 20 MRTA members, including its top leader at large, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini, disguised themselves as waiters and took hostage 480 VIPS who had been attending a holiday cocktail party at Aoki's residence. Those detained included the Peruvian chancellor, the president's brother, the head of the Peruvian judiciary and the chief of the anti-terrorist police known as DINCOTE.

Observers have watched Archbishop Cipriani's role in the crisis with great interest. Raised in a large and devout Catholic family that was among the first to join Opus Dei in the early 1950s, young Juan Luis was an energetic and popular basketball player who played for the national team. While attending college, he became a lay member of Opus Dei, but only decided to study for the priesthood after working as a civil engineer for several years. He was ordained in 1977 as an Opus Dei priest and within a few years had established a reputation for his work with youth. In 1988, while head of Opus Dei in Peru, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Ayacucho.

Located in the southern Peruvian Andes, Ayacucho had a well-deserved reputation as a complex diocese. The poorest in the country, it was also the birthplace and the stronghold of Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), the bloody Maoist guerrilla movement.

Since 1991, when he became apostolic administrator of Ayacucho—two years later he became archbishop—the prelate was the most outspoken critic of the Shining Path and a supporter of the then controversial anti-terrorist strategy of newly elected president Alberto Fujimori. At that time, the Shining Path considered him a grave enemy, not only because of his fearless homilies attacking them, but because he persuaded several civil authorities not to abandon Ayacucho at a time when Sendero's capture of the Andean city seemed imminent.

The archbishop's firm stand gained him first the admiration, then the friendship of President Alberto Fujimori. It was this closeness to the president, more than the fact that he spent almost seven hours inside the Japanese embassy on Dec. 25, which sparked speculations that he was the official mediator between the government and the rebels. Since that day, Archbishop Cipriani has become the most regular—and probably the most important—visitor to the hostages and their captors inside the embassy.

“I am not an official mediator or anything of the kind,” he said Dec. 27 at an impromptu press conference outside the embassy. “The mediator is (education minister) Domingo Palermo and I am not willing to take his role. My role here is purely pastoral, as it would be expected from a Catholic bishop,” he added.

Michel Minning, a representative of the Red Cross, confirmed that Archbishop Cipriani spent most of the time inside celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, and otherwise attending to pastoral needs. Nevertheless, his regular presence has gained him the trust of the MRTA's Cerpa Cartolini and his followers. In fact, since Dec. 25, the archbishop has played a key role negotiating the release of hostages, transferring communications, advising official mediator Palermo. But some local analysts believe he has helped persuade the MRTA to soften their written statements demanding release of their imprisoned comrades, and to free greater numbers of their hostages.

Archbishop Cipriani is also reported to be, along with Palermo, the closest advisor to Fujimori during the hostage crisis. Ironically, the bishop's reputation as being solidly “anti-terrorist” has not hampered his being accepted by the MRTA as a participant in all conversations with the government. In their recent press releases on the Internet, the MRTA has described Archbishop Cipriani as “not a mediator but a reliable witness.”

According to released hostages, the terrorists treat Archbishop Cipriani both with confidence and respect. They address him as “Most Reverend” and even, sometimes as “Your Excellency.” On Christmas day, they asked him to stay and share the turkey that Fujimori's daughter delivered to hostages and captors.

According to sources close to the government, Archbishop Cipriani has also provided strong spiritual support to government officials. On New Year's eve, the archbishop celebrated a Mass for President Fujimori and his entire cabinet. Observers said that the fact that the Mass was off-limits to the press stripped it of any political significance and underscored its sincerely spiritual intent. That marks a change from the cool relations in recent years between the administration and the Church. Fujimori's strictly pragmatic approach to the country's social and economic problems—including in birth control and sex education programs endorsed by the government—has often put his administration at odds with the Church. Archbishop Cipriani's key role in the hostage crisis seems to have chipped away at the barrier between Church and state.

Analysts in Lima hesitate to speculate on how the ongoing hostage crisis will end. They do agree that Archbishop Cipriani will continue to play a major role. He still insists he is not an official mediator, but as the new year began, he was escorting still more hostages out of the residence.

Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima.