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Religious strife complicates Chiapas.

The armed uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas, now in its fifth year, has been perceived as a rebellion of indigenous peasants against the central authority. The religious element of the conflict is not so well known, but its resolution may hold the key to a negotiated peace in the region.

At the moment, peace in Chiapas seems remote. The Zapista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) persists in a "low intensity" guerrilla offensive, building up its arsenal while soliciting money and sympathy from abroad. The Mexican government opposes United Nations intervention, saying they can sort out their own problems, apparently with endless military crackdowns. In his September 1, 1998, state of the nation address, President Ernesto Zedillo did not so much as mention the situation in Chiapas, an ominous omission which suggests that his government has no new peace initiatives in mind.

The first chance for a truce in two years presented itself when the rebels agreed to meet a multi-party delegation from Mexico's National Congress. The session, held November 22, 1998, was a complete failure. Zapista representatives walked out of these state-sponsored talks after just forty-five minutes.

Evangelical presence ignored

During 1996, it was a Catholic group, the National Intermediation Committee (CONAI) headed by Samuel Ruiz, the bishop from the Chiapas area, which alone succeeded for a time in bringing the Mexican government and the Zapista rebel leaders into productive negotiating sessions. With the CONAI mediating, government and Zapista negotiators reached the San Andres Accords on indigenous rights and other matters.

The CONAI was made up of priests and prominent citizens, with Bishop Ruiz as chairman, but it did not include any representatives of non-Catholic churches. This deliberate exclusion is difficult to justify, given the impressive presence Protestant churches have established for themselves among the populace directly affected by the war. The mainline news magazine Proseco estimates that Evangelical groups in Chiapas maintain 5,000 places of worship and are led by approximately 7,000 pastors, and may now be as much as 40 per cent of the population of Chiapas.

Talks broke down when the Mexican government intensified its military efforts to crush the Zapista insurgents. Zedillo later came up with a "Presidential Initiative" on Chiapas, effectively disowning the San Andres program.

Catholics attacked

Since March 1998, Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa has said that the President's administration no longer considers Bishop Ruiz a neutral mediator. Ruiz dissolved the CONAI in June 1998, citing his frustration with the government's insistence on a "military solution" in Chiapas. The present impasse in the war had begun.

Elements within the Mexican regime have always treated the Catholic Church with suspicion and hostility. Since the start of the uprising, the central government has closed sixty of the 128 Catholic churches in Chiapas, and converted fifteen of them into military or police quarters.

In addition, in 1997, the pro-government paramilitary group Paz y Justicia attempted to assassinate Bishop Ruiz and fellow Catholic Bishop Raul Vera. According to the human rights group MEXPAZ, a great number of the men who belong to Paz y Justicia profess the Evangelical and Presbyterian faiths. Their principal targets have been Catholic lay teachers, priests, and pastoral workers.

The December 1997 massacre in the village of Acteal brought Chiapas worldwide attention. Eighteen children, twenty women, and seven men were gunned down, while attending a Roman Catholic prayer service. Human rights observers believe the culprits to have been members of a pro-government paramilitary group called Mascara Roja (Red Mask). The victims were Catholics associated with an official lay movement called Las Abejas (Bees). The men charged with carrying out the Acteal murders are Indian peasants who, in addition to Mascara Roja, are members of a Protestant Evangelical church. Their legal defence is being funded by a coalition of Evangelical congregations.

Reverse discrimination

Protestants, too, have suffered greatly in Mexico, a nation 97 per cent Catholic. "Intolerance takes place because local officials have disobeyed legislation that guarantees religious freedom and discriminated against non-Catholic religious groups", reports the Rutherford Institute, which monitors religious liberty throughout the world. In Chiapas, Evangelical Christians have been driven out of their communities by murders, assaults, threats, the destruction of homes, rapes, forced labour, and the misuse of judicial and police powers. Given the general presumption that they are more likely to sympathize with the government than with the rebels, non-Catholic Christians have the added fear of being terrorized by Zapista forces.

Churches did not start the war, but may be indispensable to ending it. The CONAI negotiations have been the most successful of any efforts at ending the fighting in Chiapas. The experiment of mediation by religious leaders is worth repeating, and may be the only option.

When I was in Mexico last year, I heard Cardinal Archbishop Noroberto Rivera of Mexico City telling the press that he hoped peace could be achieved in time for the January 1999 visit by Pope John Paul II. This turned out to be wishful thinking. Still, some positive signs are emerging. Mexico's Conference of Catholic Bishops, which previously closed ranks in support of Bishop Ruiz, has been promoting a new mediating body which this time is to be open to representatives of non-Catholic churches.

Last year, grass-roots meetings between Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals to reduce religious strife got underway in Chiapas. Not all churches take part. Certain Evangelicals, intent on proselytizing, frustrate the efforts of Protestants who have opted for an interdenominational truce.

To create a functional mediating body, Mexican churches will have to forgive one another for a long history of trespasses, and work together for the common good. That, after all, is what they would be trying to get the government and the rebels to do.

Edward Kiernan holds Spanish and Law degrees from the University of Western Ontario. He studied Mexican law at the University of Guanajuato in 1998, and currently works at the law firm of Edward C. Corrigan in London, Ontario.
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Title Annotation:conflict in Chiapas, Mexico, continues, despite the efforts of Catholic and other religious groups
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:May 1, 1999
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