In Chiapas Some Towns Are at Odds With Catholic Bishop
By JULIA PRESTON
HANAL, Mexico -- When Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia comes to
this town, he wears a metal helmet as protection against bullets, and
he walks surrounded by burly bodyguards.
Ruiz is in charge
of the Roman Catholic diocese that includes
most of the southern state of Chiapas. But he cannot enter the
white stucco church in the central square here to celebrate Mass.
Indian officials in charge of the town threatened
violence against the bishop and his followers if they tried to approach
the church on a visit he made to the town in March. On the eve of
the visit, top Chiapas state officials publicly implored him to cancel it.
All across Indian
regions of Chiapas are towns where
government supporters are fiercely at odds with Catholics who are loyal
to Ruiz and the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, which he has
headed for 38 years.
The bishop, 73,
preaches a passionately egalitarian message, calling on
Indians to reject the virtual caste system under which they are routinely
abused or ignored.
But many government
supporters and followers of other faiths reject
Ruiz's message. They say he moved behind the scenes to foment the 1994
uprising by Zapatista guerrillas, and they blame him for the economic
downturn and chronic tensions in Chiapas since then.
Ruiz denies that
he helped the Zapatistas' armed movement, although he
admits to sympathizing with their call for more justice for Indians. His
enemies have never been able to prove their charges. But the hatred has
spilled out nevertheless in a campaign of violence against Catholics and
Since 1994, when
the Zapatista conflict began, 40 Catholic churches or
chapels have been burned, destroyed or closed by opponents of Ruiz.
Today, 14 of the churches remain closed. Hundreds of Catholics have
had to flee their homes or to worship in virtual hiding in their villages.
Last Nov. 7,
Ruiz and another bishop barely escaped from an ambush on
a dirt road in another Chiapas region. Neither bishop was injured, but
three Bible teachers suffered bullet wounds. The diocese blamed a
pro-government paramilitary group called Justice and Peace, which had
threatened Ruiz. The group denied having anything to do with the attack.
One place where
the church is closed to Catholics is Chanal, a hillside
village of corn-farming Tzeltal Indians whose town council is controlled by
supporters of the pro-government Institutional Revolutionary Party,
known as the PRI.
of residents practice their own form of Catholicism, called
traditional, a mixture of Catholic and pre-Hispanic Mayan religions. They
do not read the Bible or regard it as a sacred text. Almost all of them are
On Jan. 1, 1994,
the day when masked and armed Zapatista guerrillas
initiated a short-lived uprising with military attacks across Chiapas, some
of them swooped into Chanal and gutted the town hall with fire. Villagers
said the Zapatistas did not have many supporters in Chanal.
Soon after that
the mayor, a PRI member, convened a meeting to vent his
rage about the attack. The mayor picked on a leader of a Catholic
opposition group in Chanal, even though it was an above-ground
organization that had no apparent ties to the Zapatista guerrillas, and
slapped the man across the face in front of all of the townspeople. Within
days hundreds of Catholics took the mayor's message and fled.
Ever since then,
Chanal leaders have told the diocese that they want Ruiz
to stay away.
"The people in
this town don't like Samuel Ruiz, because in 1994 he
organized people to go to war," said Celestino Diaz Perez, 35, a member
of the PRI town council, sitting at the long wooden council table in the
reconstructed town hall. "They don't want him to come here or go into the
church, because he might start organizing the war again."
While the doors
of the church remain open, a caretaker designated from
among "traditional" Catholics is always inside. He allows "traditionals" to
use the church to worship St. Peter the Martyr, the town's patron. But his
instructions are to bar Roman Catholics from holding any kind of service,
although they may enter individually.
Santiz, 57, a PRI justice of the peace, explained his point
of view: "We 'traditionals' are in charge of preserving the customs of our
people. And our people do not want Catholics in this church."
who had fled have returned to Chanal but continue to live
almost clandestinely. A group of them built a wooden shed big enough for
a prayer service. But knowing that PRI followers regard Catholic
meetings as potential organizing cells for the Zapatista guerrillas, they put a
clay bread oven in one corner and use it as a bakery during the week.
"This is not
a chapel," various Catholics insisted to a stranger, looking
furtively out the window to see if hostile PRI followers were approaching.
"We get together
to read the Bible," said Emilio Lopez Diaz, 24, one of
the Catholics. "We're not buying arms, and we're not organizing."
They were eagerly
awaiting the arrival of Ruiz several days later, who was
coming to conduct baptisms and to name some community catechists, or
Bible teachers. During his visit, Ruiz did not celebrate Mass, but only
conducted a simple but crowded prayer service in a private house.
us the path we must take should be different from the path of
the powerful, the people who build their own strength by taking away
what others have," Ruiz said in his homily, once again articulating the
theological message that has so antagonized the powers that be in
Chiapas. "Those people destroy themselves, because they have no
has added new fuel to the grass-roots conflict by
mounting a fierce political assault on Ruiz. The Interior Ministry has
harassed foreigners who work with the human rights office of the diocese,
And PRI delegates
to the state legislature presented a motion to have
Bishop Ruiz declared a traitor to his country.
(On June 7, Bishop
Ruiz resigned from his four-year role as the chief
mediator in peace talks between the government and the Zapatistas, citing
the government's "constant and growing aggression" against the diocese as
one of his reasons.)
Priests in the
diocese say they fear that the conflict has become so
rancorous that they may never be able to bring the Catholic faith to many
of the Indian communities.
"We are afraid
that divisions are emerging that will be irreconcilable," said
the Rev. Felipe Toussaint, a leading clergyman of the diocese. "We are
afraid we are losing the possibility of dialogue with many people."