The Miami Herald
November 4, 1999

 Mexican "bishop of the poor" retires

 Samuel Ruiz helped area for 40 years

 Associated Press

 SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- To some, he is the champion of
 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 influential
 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 soon became
 concerned about the poverty and isolation in Chiapas state, which includes some
 of Mexico's most remote mountains and jungles.


 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 20,000
 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 peace talks
 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 him.
 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 throughout the
 world. He has been named as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.


 The controversy has turned violent at times. In 1995, government supporters
 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.''