In remote Mexican villages, many abandon Catholicism Citing intolerance, some 'outcasts' join Protestants

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- Salvador Lope ## might have been bitterly confused when the Mexican government recently revoked century-old bans against the Catholic Church here in the name of religious tolerance.

The bans -- instituted to punish the church for its alliance with Spain before the revolution -- have not been enforced for decades. And in this remote mountainous region at the southern edge of Mexico, it's the Catholics who have been brutally intolerant.

"One day, I got a knock at the door," Mr. Lopez, a 35-year-old father of two, recalled, sitting at a rickety wood table in his cramped and dusty two-room shack. "About 20 people came into my house, beat me and then took me to jail. They told me that I had to renounce my faith and come back to the Catholic Church.

"I said no," he added, pounding his fist on the table. "They hit me some more and told me if I didn't leave, they would kill me and my family. My daughter was only 8 days old.

"I left."

Salvador Lopez is an "expulsado" -- an outcast, along with thousands of others from around his nearby native village of San Juan Chamula who have left the Roman Catholic Church to become Protestants.

He was attracted by the very Protestant evangelists whom Pope John Paul II referred to as "rapacious wolves" in an address to Latin American bishops a couple of weeks ago in the Dominican Republic.

But the Catholics of San Juan Chamula needed no incitement from the pope. They had long had their own way of dealing with what the pontiff referred to as "the pseudospiritual movements . . . whose aggressiveness and expansion must be faced."

"Belt of misery"

Over the past 15 years, more than 15,000 others from villages around San Juan Chamula have abandoned the Catholic faith. Some of the men were beaten or incarcerated without arrest warrants. Some of the women were raped. All had homes and belongings confiscated.

These "expulsados" now live in what is called "El Cinturon de Miseria" -- the belt of misery. It is a collection of ramshackle tin huts on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, a town of flat adobe structures inhabited predominantly by people of Mayan Indian descent.

The expulsados were once farmers in San Juan Chamula who worked plots of land and grew enough corn, beans and fruit to feed their families and to sell at local markets. Now each family lives on about $5 a day, selling everything from wool ponchos to intricately sewn tapestries to packets of chewing gum. Or they wander the streets, looking for odd jobs.

Their plight is shared by more and more people throughout Latin America as Protestant sects, generally with roots in the United States, continue to win converts. Demographers say the Protestant groups have converted 18 percent to 21 percent of the population in Brazil; 20 percent of Salvadorans; 18 percent to percent of Guatemalans, including the country's president; and 16 percent in Chile.

Although statistics from the most recent Mexican census show that about 90 percent of the country's 81 million residents are Catholic, researchers say most are not active participants, staunch believers or regular contributors to the Catholic Church. Protestant leaders claim 12 million followers in Mexico, and though some keep their faith a secret out of fear of repression, most are enthusiastically active in their churches.

The rapid growth of Protestant sects in Latin America was a main topic of discussion among Latin American bishops when they met with the pope last month in Santo Domingo.

"Like the Good Shepherd," he told them, "you are to feed the flock entrusted to you and defend it from rapacious wolves.

But the pope might have had places like San Juan Chamula in mind when he warned that "poor and simple people" turning to other religions are "looking for a religious meaning to life that they perhaps do not find in those who should be abundant examples of it."

The appeal of Protestantism

It is not only the difference in the way Protestants interpret the Bible that provokes the wrath of Catholics in rural Latin American villages. Protestantism disrupts the long-held cultural, economic and political traditions of poor villages. Those who refuse to see these traditions die fight back, sometimes ruthlessly.

Since the mid-1960s, Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses have gone door-to-door in this state's impoverished villages, encouraging followers to be more independent. The ministers teach people to read and solve basic math problems, how to grow healthier crops and how to get better prices for their produce at markets.

They have also persuaded many followers to stop drinking posh, a potent corn-based liquor that is an essential part of the Chamulans' ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is increasingly seen as a monolith more concerned about its own prosperity and political clout than about the miserable living conditions of most of its followers.

"The Catholic Church worries a lot about its influence over the government and its ties to the state," said Rudolfo Casillas, of the Center of Religious Studies in Mexico City. "The evangelical churches worry more about their ties to society. It's not because they disrespect the government. It's because they don't see political influence as part of their mission."

Mexico's southeastern state of Chiapas, on the border of Guatemala, is the site of one of the most dramatic examples of religious violence in Latin America, and the plight of the expulsados from San Juan Chamula has brought calls for justice from human rights groups around the world.

The Mexican government and Catholic Church denounce the expulsions as tragic. But San Juan Chamula's leaders have strong ties to Mexico's dominant political power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

And a report by the National Commission for Human Rights says that while government officials in the area say they oppose the expulsions, they have taken no concrete action to stop them.

"I don't know of any place else in Latin America where the situation is as grave as in San Juan Chamula," says Miguel Angel de Los Santos, with the Frey Bartolome Human Rights Center, a Catholic organization in San Cristobal de las Casas that has denounced the expulsions. "People are not only expelled because of their religious beliefs. They are expelled because the village leaders want control of all the land. And the government has refused to get involved in a real meaningful way."

A village of farmers

San Juan Chamula is a village of farmers who still speak Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect, instead of Spanish. They dress in the same colors: The women wear black swaths of cloth wrapped like skirts around their waists and blue shawls over their shoulders. The men wear black wool ponchos and straw hats.

Instead of modern medicine, many Chamulans submit to medicine men who try to rid the body of infections by cutting a person so the bad blood will flow out.

Women rarely speak in public. Political leaders are elected by voice vote instead of by private ballots. And men always walk in groups.

"The more people you have walking with you, the more important you are," sociologist Valda Mosquera said during a recent stroll though San Juan Chamula. "If you walk alone, you are no one. This is not a place that values individualism."

The Catholic church, a plain white adobe structure, dominates the main square. And almost everyday it is filled with worshipers.

Families come together, carrying bundles of thin candles and bottles of posh. There are no pews in the church. Only hay cushions the green tile floors. The families light candles for every favor they are going to ask from God.

And then, to enter a state in which they can communicate with God, they share glasses of posh -- everyone from 5-year-old children to 75-year-old great-grandmothers.

L Drunk, they mumble prayers, cry over their sins or pass out.

"That's all religion is to them," Mr. Lopez complains about the Catholic Chamulans. "They never read the Bible. They just get drunk and get drunk some more."

Mr. Lopez was drawn to the El Salvador Pentecostal Church when he heard they were having a workshop to help the Chamulans organize a cooperative so they could work together and demand higher prices for their corn. When the farmers gathered, the pentecostals filled their heads with much more.

The ministers told them that the alcohol was not a channel to God, but only a way for political leaders to keep control.

"The Catholics wanted to keep us drunk so that we wouldn't think and make decisions against them," Mr. Lopez said. "And they make a lot of money selling posh and soda for their festivals."

So the evangelicals began to abstain from the elaborate ceremonies and refused to buy posh. Then they took matters a step further and began protesting against the municipal leaders. That's when the powers of the community began to expel them from their own homes.

"We are refugees in our own country," Mr. Lopez said during a break from his church service one recent Sunday. "Because we wouldn't pay for the religious festivals and pray in their church, all our rights have been taken away. We have nothing. Our families have been torn apart. And there is no one who helps us."

Patrocinio Gonzalez, governor of the state of Chiapas, says the government has been reluctant to use police or military force to stop the expulsions because although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, it also allows indigenous groups to protect their struggling cultures.

"We can't create a political system that destroys the cultures that have defended themselves with such fervor," he said. "But neither can we permit violations of human rights."

Besides, he said, he could use security forces to escort the refugees home. "But when the forces leave, who will guarantee their safety?"

Aides to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari say he has stayed out of the persecution of Protestants in San Juan Chamula because it is viewed as a local problem, best settled by officials there.

Catholic leaders argue that the recent lifting of the symbolic bans against the church and the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Vatican last month will enable the church to develop a more meaningful dialogue with the people.

"With more liberty, the church will be able to comply with its mission of evangelism," says Adolfo Suarez, president of the Mexican Bishop's Council.

Slowly, the Catholic Church is organizing more self-help programs and community-oriented missions.

But the church seems unlikely to reclaim Mr. Lopez.

Squinting in the midday sun, he looks up at the mountain that casts a shadow over his dusty exile community and points at a Catholic church. He says it's no coincidence that many of the Catholic churches around San Cristobal de las Casas sit high on top of hills.

"The people must always climb up to them," he says. "They never come down to see our world. When they speak, they look down on us, not in our eyes."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°