SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) -- 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 earsplitting 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 government'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
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
The diocese of Chiapas is a partner in The Bible School, which 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."
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.