Society

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)
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's syncretism, 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

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ