The New York Times
June 16, 1998

          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.

          Pro-government 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
          their churches.

          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.

          The majority 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.

          Agustin Mendez 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."

          Many Catholics 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.

          "Jesus tells 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
          spiritual growth."

          The government 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,
          deporting several.

          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."