Latin and Central America

Mexico struggles to ensure religious freedom for rural converts

Some current and former members of the Evangelical church in San Juan Ozolotepec forced to leave

In choosing Christianity, Mexican tribals risk alienation, eviction from their communities

While as many as 90% of Mexico’s population would identify as Christian, (mostly Roman Catholic) not all of them are free to practice their faith, according to a report in World Watch Monitor.

Some come under pressure from drug cartels, either by being members of churches who meet regularly and carry money from offerings, and are therefore seen as easy targets, The way the practice their faith sets them up against the ambitions of the cartels.

For others, such as converts from indigenous communities, the pressure comes as a result of their refusal to continue to participate in the same religious, social and cultural activities as the rest of their community. In places like Tuxpan de Bolaños in the western state of Jalisco, some of the converts who refused to participate in tribal religious rituals and sacrifices, or offer money towards them, were forced out of the town.

In other communities, such as the town of San Juan Ozolotepec in the southern state of Oaxaca, converts are targeted by people who at first glance would seem to be fellow Christians.

The vast majority of the people of San Juan would say they are Catholics, though the reality is more nuanced.

“In rural areas, the religious practice of the people is very much influenced by indigenous traditions, so there’s really a syncretic mix between some elements of Catholicism and other indigenous traditions and beliefs,” he says. “Many Protestants who suffer hostilities from groups practising folk religion tend to think that it’s the Catholic Church that is behind it, but since the Catholic Church doesn’t really have that much influence over those communities, that’s really not correct.”

In San Juan, as in Tuxpan, some of those who now call themselves “Evangelical” Christians have been evicted from their community.

Sanchez, who will be 50 in June, is one of those whose family has been split in two – her son, daughter-in-law and five-year-old granddaughter are in Bolaños. Another of her children, Yolanda, remains with her and her husband in Tuxpan.

A local indigenous missionary, Casimiro Martin Vazquez Mendoza – the man who brought the Christian message to Tuxpan – visits when he can. For 12 years, he has been travelling amongst his fellow Wixárikas, going back and forth between towns and villages which are hours apart. He has seen many accept the message he has brought, but he has also faced opposition.

One of them, the leader of the group, Alonso Silva, 43, was badly beaten and then imprisoned alongside other converts, while his house, car, and the church building the converts had recently finished constructing, were all demolished.

Mr Silva and his wife and three children now live in a town just outside the state capital, four-and-a-half hours from San Juan. They are forbidden from returning home.

Some members of his congregation have followed him, choosing to turn their backs on a town in which they were regularly insulted or subjected to discrimination. Children were bullied at school; adults found they were no longer permitted to buy things from local stores.

One woman who followed the Silvas out of San Juan, Guadalupe Aragon Reyes, 36, told World Watch Monitor that the mob who arrested Mr. Silva also arrested her and her husband, and that they attempted to rip the clothes from her back.

“They said I was there [in prison] because I was a prostitute,” she explained. “They treated me really badly. They said they were taking me to the pastor because I sleep with him, I do this and that to him … and they kept their promise. They threw me into the cell where the pastor was lying naked … but when I was in there and I saw the pastor, I couldn’t recognise him. His face was deformed. He had been beaten up, was injured and totally naked.”

Mrs. Reyes said that after she was released from the jail, she tried to find some clothes to take back for Mr. Silva but that on her way back, she was insulted again, and beaten, by a group of women outside the jail. “When I went through, they hit me with sticks and taunted me, asking why it was me who was helping the pastor and not his own wife,” she said. “But I feared they would do something to her, so I had decided to take the clothes myself. Then I went to the authorities to plead for the release of the pastor and the other Christians, but they kept saying it was the people and not the authorities who had placed them there; it was the people’s choice and they wouldn’t release them.”

Omar Rodriguez, who presides over a church in the state capital, Guadalajara, and also supports the Christians in Tuxpan and Bolaños, takes the same view.

“We are convicted that God gave us the Great Commission,” he says, “and when He said to go out to the whole world, that includes our indigenous friends and compatriots, who also have a need to fill the emptiness in their hearts.

“And what could be better for us to share with them than the real God, the King of Kings and the God of Gods. The God who created the [things] that these guys worship.”

Despite the difficulties, the converts have continued to face, around 50 of the group have remained, though they say they continue to feel abandoned by the local authorities – and even several of the faith-based organisations that have visited the area.

World Watch Monitor asked the state government if it wished to comment on the situation but received no reply.

Mrs Reyes, speaking on behalf of the group, said: “We would love for things to be resolved there, but we do not know how, because we can’t make the people understand that people should be free to choose the faith they want to follow. They close their minds and can’t understand that we can be free, we can decide our faith. They want to force us to be who they are, to do what they do, what they practise. We decided to separate and get away from the things they do – their traditions, their religious customs – and that’s what bothers them.

“We would like help, for [organisations] to help us to have dialogue with the community, to find some kind of agreement, because we have tried but they did not want to accept. They do not want to.”

Petri told World Watch Monitor that the state government, “and in many cases the federal government”, has failed to properly document the case as a “convenient way for them to ignore the problem and not to act upon it”.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has repeatedly reprimanded the Mexican State for not fulfilling its duty to document cases of human-rights violations, he added.

Petri added that the issue is political as much as it is religious. However, he said that any debate about the root of the problem is less important than working towards a solution.

“To one degree, you could interpret the building and opening of a church in a rural community as just believers exercising their right to freedom of religious expression, or freedom of worship, but in the context of those communities the church building is also a symbol that directly threatens the moral authority of the local leaders,” he said. “A church building therefore is not just a house of prayer, but also it’s a political statement of subversion and people are indirectly saying, even subconsciously, that they no longer submit to the authority of the community and also refuse to take part in the rituals and other traditions of the community.

He challenged the Mexican government and judiciary to do more, and also the Catholic Church.

“A lot of the persecution happens in the name of the Catholic faith, but is not part of what the Catholic Church believes,” he said. “And we have a unique opportunity with a Latin American Pope, who has himself suffered religious persecution when he was bishop in Argentina, so he would certainly be someone who would understand.”

A complicating factor in San Juan, as in Tuxpan and other indigenous communities, is the government’s constitutional requirement to protect the traditions – or “uses and customs” – of the ancient communities.

As such, a certain level of autonomy has been granted to each community, whereby they can appoint their own local leaders, even if they are still, officially at least, beholden to the state authorities and its laws on respecting religious freedom, and human rights in general.

“It’s very important that the rights to the preservation of the indigenous and rural traditions are protected, and the Mexican Constitution provides for that … but that shouldn’t be used as an argument to violate the rights of individuals within those communities who decide to convert,” says Petri. “It’s essential that those rights are balanced.”