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Abortive effort to oust bishop puts Vatican on the defensive.

MEXICO CITY -- The Vatican's threatened removal of popular San Cristobal de las Casas Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia is still generating a storm of controversy and intrigue here. At loggerheads are Ruiz, longtime human rights advocate in the southern state of Chiapas, and papal nuncio Archbishop Girolamo Prigione, with the ghost of slain Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo hovering in the background.

News of Ruiz's impending removal was leaked to the Mexican press in late October (NCR, Nov. 5), apparently after Prigione let it slip while entertaining high government officials to celebrate John Paul II's 15th anniversary as pope. Reports said Ruiz, an internationally recognized champion of Mexico's poor and indigenous people, was being removed at the behest of the Mexican government.

Prigione denied that allegation, although he did say at an Oct. 27 press conference that there may have been talks between the Vatican and Mexican officials that bypassed him. At that same press conference, after intense media coverage said Ruiz had already been removed, Prigione said the Vatican was still studying accusations against the bishop.

But Kathy Vargas, a former missionary in Chiapas and a close friend of Ruiz, said the bishop met with Prigione Oct. 26 in Mexico City. Vargas said Prigione read from a Vatican letter accusing Ruiz of "grave doctrinal, pastoral and administrative errors in the governance of his diocese" and also of gravely offending the Holy Father.

Ruiz's only public comment before he returned to Chiapas was that he was "a man of the church, and if they ask me to take on other responsibilities I will comply." At age 69, he has been bishop in Chiapas since 1960 and has long been considered an enemy of the area's rural elite.

As the controversy pushed nearly everything else off the pages of Mexico's leading newspapers, 250 non-governmental organizations protested the impending removal and pledged their support for Ruiz.

Jesuit Fr. Jesus Garcia, Mexico's leading Vaticanologist, said the Vatican had given in to government pressure because Ruiz had spoken so clearly against the neoliberal economic model Mexico is embracing, called for the abandonment of the North American Free Trade Agreement and refused to accept the government explanation of Posadas' May 24 murder at the Guadalajara airport. All those themes were laid out in Ruiz's pastoral letter, "In this Hour of Grace," which he presented to John Paul II when the pope visited Mexico in August.

At the Oct. 27 press conference, Prigione said for the first time that Posadas was deliberately executed, rather than accidentally caught in a drug-war cross-fire, as the government claims. Unconfirmed reports have suggested government implication in the murder, possibly as a warning to church officials to stay out of politics.

Responding to the controversy, Bishop Ramon Godinez Flores, secretary-general of the Mexican bishops' conference, said the conference bad already stated a year ago that Ruiz's work followed all church guidelines. Godinez also denied that Prigione is the head of the Mexican church, as the Italian archbishop had claimed at his press conference. Only the bishops of Mexico's 79 dioceses are entitled to fill that role, Godinez said.

Ciudad Juarez emeritus Archbishop Manuel Talamas Camandari called Ruiz "a stimulating example for us, as much for his evangelism as for his denunciation of injustices."

Ruiz was one of five Mexican bishops who signed a statement opposing NAFTA that was released in Washington Oct. 28. The statement says NAFTA has already widened the huge gap between Mexico's rich and poor, something Ruiz has been arguing for some time.

Sources in San Cristobal said last week that the diocese had opened up direct talks with Rome, bypassing Prigione. At the same time, the Mexican government attempted to distance itself from the controversy by sending a representative to Ruiz's 69th birthday party, celebrated Oct. 31 in Chiapas.
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Title Annotation:Mexican Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia
Author:Coleman, Bill; Coleman, Patty
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 12, 1993
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