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Pope In Mexico: Indians In Chiapas Turn Their Backs On Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Mexico, one of the world's most Catholic countries. But other religions are gaining ground, especially in the state of Chiapas, where even Islam has made inroads. Adopting a different religion, however, can be ris

The Catholic cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas (meg and rahul)
The Catholic cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas (meg and rahul)
Frédéric Saliba

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS – Dressed in a long white robe topped with a dark red taqiyah cap, Manuel Gomez, 61, walks along one of the main roads in San Cristobal de las Casas in the south of Mexico. "I was born Catholic, became Presbyterian. Today, I am Muslim," says this Tzotzil Indian who has called himself Mohammed since his conversion to Islam in 1995.

Just like him, tens of thousands of people from this little town in the state of Chiapas, the birthplace of the Zapatista revolutionary movement, have turned their back on the Catholic faith.

The Muslims may remain relatively few, but Protestants and Evangelicals make up more than a quarter of the Chiapas population of 4.8 million. These mass conversions, occurring against a backdrop of violent expulsions from the state, worry the Mexican clergy receiving Pope Benedict XVI in Guanajuato state this weekend.

In his decrepit house, Mohammed prays five times a day. "I have been invited to Mecca twice," he says with a smile. The humble fruit and vegetable seller had never left Chiapas before adopting the Muslim faith. His wife Nura (Joana) wears an Islamic headscarf, but has kept her traditional tzotzil dress made of goatskin. "There is no question of rejecting our ancestors' culture," emphasizes Mohammed.

Not far away, at the end of a dirt track, a renovated building houses an Islamic Morabitum school from the Sufi branch of Islam. "About 20 students learn the Koran phonetically there," explains the imam Hajj Idriss, also known as Esteban Lopez, who leads Friday prayers. The 60-year-old Spaniard came to Chiapas in 1995 to introduce Islam to Mexico. Since then, about 500 members of the indigenous community have converted to Islam in Chiapas alone. "Our influence remains modest compared to the Protestants," acknowledges the imam.

The scale of Protestant influence is demonstrated by the presence of about 10 evangelical churches in the city of 190,000, including Adventists, Baptists, Methodists. "In the 1930s, the first missionaries translated the Bible into indigenous languages," explains Aida Hernandez, religious specialist at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (Ciesas) on the outskirts of Mexico City. "Chiapas now has the most protestants in Mexico." Their proportion in this state (23.35%) has almost doubled in 20 years, according to the Mexican National Office of Statistics.

On Sunday morning in another working-class area in the north of the town, the Pentecost Temple ‘Solo Cristo Salva" (Only Christ saves) is packed. Inside, Manuel Dias, a 20-year-old Tzotzil Indian, plays enthusiastic Halleluiahs on an electric organ. In front of him the faithful raise their arms toward the sky, clap their hands and dance to rock, pop and salsa rhythms with their eyes closed. "Look at how the faith is stronger here," Pastor Rafael Ruiz beams, before giving his sermon in Spanish and Tzotzil.

Price of conversion

For Gaspar Marquecho, anthropologist at the Universidad Autónoma in Chiapas, "The Indians are disappointed in Catholicism, which still carries the stains of colonial memories and the authoritarianism of mixed-race priests. The Evangelical churches, which respect the people'ssyncretism, respond better to their needs for spiritual fulfilment and a sense of community in the face of poverty, illiteracy and discrimination."

Vicente Garcia, a 33-year-old Pentecostal Church member: "stopped drinking thanks to God." But this street vendor paid a high price for his conversion. "The Catholics hunted my family," said this former peasant, who was expelled from San Juan Chamula. From the 1960s until the 1990s, this market town located about 10 kilometres north of San Cristobal de las Casas was the scene of violent religious divisions.

The conflict took over the whole region. "It was either leave or die," admits Pascuala Lopez, a 25-year-old Indian whose house was set on fire in the village of Huiztan located to the southwest of the town. "Crimes are committed less frequently today, but the tensions still remain," says Marquecho.

Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas from 1959 to 1999, has fought against this violence since the late 1960s. A defender of Liberation Theology, which combats social injustice, Ruiz weaved close links with Subcomandante Marcos, who launched the Zapatista uprising on Jan. 1, 1994 in San Cristobal de las Casas in favor of Indian emancipation.

"But Marcos never wanted to get involved in religious conflicts, encouraging the evangelicals to defend themselves," said Marquecho.

Sandra Canas, an anthropology researcher at the University of Texas, explains: "In reality, the community conflicts are not religious, but political and economic. By converting to evangelicalism, the Indians are breaking with the corrupt, authoritarian system of local leaders whose domination is based on Catholicism. The local leaders therefore chuck them out so that their authority is not questioned."

The expulsions have been condemned by Felipe Arizmendi, current bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas. "We fight for religious freedom by promoting a Church that welcomes cultural diversity, something long abandoned by the Church in Chiapas." In charge of his diocese since 2000, he wants to regain lost ground by reinforcing the state ecclesiastical network, where the number of priests has grown from 66 to 90 in the past 12 years.

"Our 60 seminarists all learn an indigenous language," he says proudly. "The Pope's visit will reinforce our evangelical work."

For Imam Hajj Idriss, Islam has been spared the worst of these conflicts: "There are not many Muslims, so we are not a threat to the Catholic leaders." At least, not yet.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo – meg and rahul

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