Mexican "bishop of the poor" retires
Samuel Ruiz helped area for 40 years
BY ALEJANDRO RUIZ
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- To some, he is the champion
Mexico's poorest, a bishop who walked for days into the jungles of southern
Mexico to fight for the rights of Indian peasants.
To others, he is a heretic who used Roman Catholicism to fire
up a rebel
movement set on toppling rich landowners and the government. President Ernesto
Zedillo accused him of espousing a ``theology of violence.''
Either way, Samuel Ruiz will be remembered as one of the most
religious figures in Mexican history. He retired Wednesday on his 75th birthday
after four decades as bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas.
A 35-year-old priest when he was given the post in 1960, Ruiz
concerned about the poverty and isolation in Chiapas state, which includes some
of Mexico's most remote mountains and jungles.
AREA OF PEASANTS
The area included a majority of Indian peasants, many of whom
were exploited by
rich landowners who kept workers in check with bands of thugs. Most of his flock
were illiterate, and few spoke Spanish.
Ruiz began to travel the area, often walking or riding horseback
for days to reach
the most remote and impoverished communities. In his four decades as bishop,
he has visited 2,042 communities by his own count.
He defined his mission as evangelizing and protecting the poorest
of his flock,
and his work earned him the nickname ``Bishop of the Poor,'' but also the ire of
the landowners in the region, who allegedly sent gunmen after him, and of the
Even Mexico's papal nuncio asked him to resign in 1993. More than
Indians marched in his support, and the nuncio backed down.
Ruiz's position became even more touchy after the Jan. 1, 1994,
uprising of the
Zapatista National Liberation Army, a rebel group fighting for Indian rights in
Chiapas. Ruiz had denounced many of the same abuses the rebels were
combating, and he immediately became associated with the rebels.
He served as mediator between the government and the rebels when
began in 1994, but the government soon accused him of siding with the guerrillas.
Under pressure, he stepped down in 1998.
But he continued to denounce the government, which in turn denounced
Zedillo called Ruiz a ``protagonist of the theology of violence.'' His opponents have
dubbed him ``the red bishop'' for what they consider his socialist views.
Ruiz seems to revel in the harsh words. His diocese put out a
statement last year
calling the bishop ``the worst enemy of the regime in power, because of his
constant fight in defense of the rights of Indians.''
His support of the region's poor Indians earned Ruiz recognition
world. He has been named as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The controversy has turned violent at times. In 1995, government
pelted Ruiz's offices with stones. In 1997 in the village of Tila, members of a
right-wing paramilitary group opened fire on a convoy in which Ruiz was traveling.
Ruiz was unhurt.
Ruiz's presumed successor is Adjunct Bishop Raul Vera, who was
sent to San
Cristobal in 1995 to act as a counterbalance to Ruiz -- and who surprised church
officials by supporting Ruiz on most of his stances.
But Mexican news media have reported that Vera may not get the
post. Many of
Ruiz's enemies see his resignation as an opportunity to replace him with
someone closer to the landowners and the government. After stepping down, Ruiz
plans to move to the central state of Queretaro. In the meantime, he has been
traveling to hundreds of communities over the past year to say goodbye.
During a visit last weekend, the community hung a banner over
the main square
to greet him. ``Father Samuel,'' it read in the local Mayan language. ``We will
always remember your words.''