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Vatican moves to remove Mexican bishop: civil rights advocate fought for peasants.

MEXICO CITY - The Vatican has all but removed an internationally recognized human rights advocate and champion of the poor, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de las Casas, from his diocese.

In an Oct. 27 press conference here, Archbishop Girolamo Prigione, the papal nuncio, announced Ruiz's removal for pastoral, dogmatic and governing errors. The next day, on the heels of some intense media coverage, Prigione issued a "clarification," saying the press had misinterpreted him.

He said that Ruiz was not going to be removed immediately because the Vatican was still studying the case. But Prigione reiterated that Ruiz had committed grave pastoral and theological errors and added that the bishop had also "seriously offended the Holy Father." He did not elaborate.

During his nearly 34 years as a bishop in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, Ruiz has been a strong and unrelenting advocate for indigenous and peasant rights. Large landowners in the area have been trying for years to have him removed, denouncing him as a communist fomenting class hatred.

That same rural elite was accused last year of hatching a plot to assassinate Ruiz, who received the 1993 Letelier-Moffit International Human Rights Award. At the Oct. 2 award ceremony in Washington, Ruiz said that he was not the winner. "It is the poor people, the people who suffer, who earned this award," the bishop said.

The remark was typical of Ruiz's focus during his time as bishop. He was one of the first Mexican bishops to implement the reforms of Vatican II and the tenets of liberation theology. He is the former head of the Mexican Bishops Commission on Indigenous Affairs and the founder of a human rights center in Chiapas.

Chiapas, which borders on Guatemala, is still locked in a semifeudal landowner-peasant system that has more in common with the old Central American "banana republics" than it does with the industrialized Mexico seeking to become part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ruiz has been an outspoken opponent of NAFTA, saying that it is merely another means of exploiting the poor.

There is a widespread belief here that the Mexican government was involved in Ruiz's potential removal. Prigione's frequent and vehement denials of any government involvement have only strengthened that belief for many local observers.

Soon after Ruiz was appointed to San Cristobal in 1960, he began speaking and writing against the injustices and discrimination he saw all around him. Chiapas was once part of the Mayan civilization and descendants of those Mayan Indians make up a majority the state's population. Ruiz was also a strong supporter of the Guatemalan Indian refugees who fled from their country's military in the early 1980s.

Chiapas' ruling, non-Indian elite have long managed to deliver the vote for Mexico's entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party, so the federal government has done little to correct the gross social and economic injustices that abound in the state.

While earning the enmity of the state's wealthy power brokers, Ruiz has won the loyalty and affection of the peasant majority. Last year, thousands of Chiapas Catholics marched through the state in support of Ruiz. Worshipers in 30 of the state's 42 municipalities organized pilgrimages protesting what they said was a right-wing sponsored media smear campaign aimed at the bishop.

Earlier, about 3,000 Indians marched on the state capital to protest the jailing of a diocesan priest, Fr. Joel Padron, a land-rights advocate. Ruiz said he thought Padron had been made a scape-goat after the diocese issued an unfavorable human-rights report four days before the priest was arrested. He said state officials had demanded that some of the report be retracted as a condition for Padron's release.

Such encounters have been more the rule than the exception during Ruiz's years in Chiapas. But sources close to him say he is finished as bishop of San Cristobal, even though the Vatican backpedaled away from the media heat.

At press time Oct. 28, Ruiz was preparing to hold a press conference here. At that time, he had received no written notification of an impending removal or even a Vatican investigation.
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Title Annotation:Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia
Author:Coleman, Bill; Coleman, Patty
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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