January 22, 1999

Papal Visit To Mexico Spotlights Rifts Between Christian Groups

By Julia Lieblich

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico - Pope John Paul II, arriving in Mexico City later this week, has long feared Protestant inroads into Latin America. To find the fiercest of battles for souls, he has only to look to the southern state of Chiapas, site of the 1994 Zapatista uprising.

On a recent Sunday in Chiapas, hundreds of Tzotzil Indians gathered in the Catholic church in the mountain village of San Juan Chamula just north of San Cristobal. In one corner, men in black wool tunics and straw hats adorned with ribbon sang softly to the accompaniment of harps. Behind them stood dozens of glass cases housing statues of saints. A man went from case to case, washing each figure like a mother wiping an infant's face.

Women knelt silently before thousands of white candles stuck with wax to the tile floor, filling the church with a haze of smoke.

In the San Cristobal settlement of Nueva Esperanza, another group of Chamulas knelt in a bright and airy church, the only adornment a Mexican flag on the altar. Fourteen men in Western dress led the group in songs of Jesus' love and prayers for prosperity, backed by ear-splitting electric guitars.

They are Protestants now, expelled from their home of Chamula more than 20 years ago when they converted from Catholicism. Protestant wives left behind Catholic husbands, and brother parted with brother as belief became thicker than blood.

Just as troubling for the pope, tensions run high in Chiapas between Catholics of differing customs and political views.

Too often these conflicts have been depicted solely as religious battles in Chiapas' indigenous communities. In reality, they are fueled by a complex mix of social concerns and spiritual beliefs. And religious groups say they ignore either factor at their own peril.

It was more than half a century ago that the Mexican government invited Protestant Bible translators to Chiapas to teach Indians to read. For the first several years, the Protestants made few converts, according to Stanford University anthropology professor George Collier.

But by the 1970s, he reports, ``The missionaries began to witness a change of heart, especially among the poor.''

Xunka Lopez Diaz of Chamula became a Protestant in the 1970s after her family became convinced that the Bible rejected praying to the saints who lined the Church of San Juan.

``Catholics talk to saints,'' she says, ``and the saints don't listen because they're made of wood.''

But as Catholics have discovered from Chicago to Chamula, the reasons for conversion are often as much about power as about Biblical truth.

Protestant churches in Chiapas tended to be more egalitarian, notes Collier, allowing women to participate and men to hold church office without paying for the honor.

Women were attracted to Protestant groups that forbade alcohol. Sober Protestants, says Lopez, made better husbands.

The Catholic hierarchy, complacent for generations, now faced the challenge of reaching the Indians throughout Chiapas.

``Catholic Indians were treated like foreigners inside the church,'' says Bishop Samuel Ruiz.

Ruiz is the leader of the diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, 460 miles southeast of Mexico City. He is best known in the United States for his role as mediator between the Mexican government and the Zapatista rebels. But he has been here since the 1960s, when Masses were said only in Spanish instead of Indian languages, even as Protestants were gaining fluency in Tzotzil.

The Catholic hierarchy responded with teams of traveling Indian catechists, bilingual religion teachers. They talked to the people about how the Bible addressed injustice in their lives, such as illegal land confiscation.

This mission intensified after the Second Vatican Council called on Catholics to make a ``preferential option for the poor.''

For many, Ruiz became an emblem of that commitment, the amiable Mexican cleric who learned Indian languages and visited indigenous communities on horseback or on foot.

But as religions options increased so did tensions.

In the village of Chamula, men and women remained deeply attached to a hybrid of Catholic and Mayan traditions and severely restricted the visits of diocesan priests. They resented the Protestants' failure to participate in religious festivals, pay religious taxes and buy pox, a potent alcohol used in ceremonies.

Beginning in the mid-1970s Chamula leaders expelled some 25,000 Protestants, confiscating and sometimes burning their homes.

Lopez's father, Manuel Lopez Lopez, remembers fleeing with the shirt on his back. His mother followed; his father stayed behind and began a new family, never to visit his son again.

Meanwhile, the exiled Protestants founded their own communities on the hills surrounding the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas - settlements with names like New Jerusalem and streets called Galilee.

A year ago in the village of Acteal, north of San Cristobal, another conflict between religious groups ended in a tragedy that reverberated in the Vatican.

The conflict focused on Las Abejas, ``The Bees,'' a group of pacifist Catholics formed in 1992 by catechists who support the aims of the leftist rebel group, the Zapatistas, but reject armed conflict.

Some Zapatistas accused them of backing the government, while a primarily Protestant pro-government paramilitary patrol accused them of supporting the Zapatistas. Tensions escalated in December 1997.

``The paramilitary came and killed 45 people who died without defending themselves,'' says Alonso Lopez Mendez, a catechist and Las Abejas member. ``All they could do was hug each other.''

The Mexican government characterized the Acteal massacre as a family feud with religious overtones. But there were Catholics as well as Protestants in the paramilitary forces, and Las Abejas members believe their motives were primarily political.

Conflicts among more traditional Catholics are less traumatic but persistent enough to be trying for the pope.

Ruiz has often been at odds with Mexico's more conservative clerics who dislike his statements against the gov-ernment's economic and military policies and his decision to mediate between the Zapatistas and the government.

In 1993, the papal representative in Mexico accused him of grave doctrinal, pastoral and administrative errors, and the pope appointed another bishop, Raul Vera Lopez, to serve with him. (Vera surprised church officials by emerging as a Ruiz supporter). The pope does not plan to visit Chiapas during his Mexican visit, which begins Friday.

Relations with the Mexican government remain tense. The government has expelled six priests in recent years, and paramilitary groups believed to have government ties have threatened the lives of religious leaders. In November 1997, gunmen opened fire on a pastoral convoy carrying Ruiz.

Still, the bishop is among the religious leaders in Chiapas calling for unity in the midst of strife. Conversions are no longer the goal. Many Catholics, he says, ``now believe that God is revealing himself to everyone in the world. Another kind of evangelism is emerging - to discover what we have in common.''

The diocese of Chiapas is a partner in The Bible School, which B0040067 trains Protestant pastors and Catholic catechists, and in a project to promote inter-religious dialogue. Both Catholics and Protestants were involved in a 10-year effort to translate the Bible into Tzotzil, replacing an earlier Protestant translation that critics called anti-Catholic.

Last month, 600 Tzotzil Protestants, accompanied by state government officials to ensure their safety, held an open prayer service in Chamula for the first time in 25 years. They came not to provoke, they said, but to ``search for peace.'' In Acteal, Las Abejas members are also reaching out.

``Some Presbyterians participate in massacre, and for a while we were angry. But now we want to have reconciliation,'' says Lopez Mendez, who has translated Mahatma Gandhi's writings into Tzotzil.

At an indigenous photography project on the outskirts of San Cristobal, young Protestants and Catholics work together each day, treading lightly on religious differences that tore their parents' generation apart. Fecundo Guzman Perez, a member of the Assembly of God church known for its fervent proselytizing, refuses to talk about religious doctrine at work for fear of offending colleagues.

``What unites us,'' he says, ``is our common Mayan roots.''

It's a sentiment that would please the pope, who will likely address such topics at the capital's Basilica of Guadalupe when he speaks Saturday to bishops who participated in the 1997 Synod of America. He will discuss recommendations emerging from the synod, which stressed the importance of improved ecumenical relations.

On the eve of the pope's visit, the message of reconciliation is welcome.

``I have a lot of hope,'' Lopez Mendez says. ``Hearts are changing.''

Feedback Return to Frontpage