The civil war was violent enough, but it's worse now God's involved

Religious strife exploited for political ends is deepening old wounds in Chiapas, Mexico, reports Phil Davison
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The Independent Online
IN Graham Greene's classic The Power and The Glory, a "whisky priest" drifts from town to town, holding secret masses, driven to drink, hunted and banned during post-revolutionary Mexico's persecution of the Catholic church. More than half a century later, there were eerie echoes of Greene's novel last week as the Right Rev Samuel Ruiz, Bishop of San Cristobal, tried to hold mass for Catholic villagers in the poverty-stricken south-eastern state of Chiapas, where the story was set.

The problems faced by the bishop revealed how religious differences are complicating the state of virtual civil war in Chiapas between supporters of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - the status quo - and the masked Zapatista guerrillas who rose in arms in 1994 on behalf of Chiapas's downtrodden Mayan Indian peasant majority.

The insurrection was at least passively supported by local Catholic priests who espouse "liberation theology", and afterwards, PRI supporters and Protestant groups, the latter on the rise here and often linked to the party, occupied Catholic churches to prevent Mass or communion. They blamed Catholic priests, including Bishop Ruiz, of backing the guerrillas.

In some villages, residents admitted that the differences went back to the 1930s, and the so-called Cristeos war, when the Catholic church was persecuted by the PRI government and peasants launched a guerrilla war at the bidding of conservative priests.

Bishop Ruiz, a portly, balding figure fonder of a glass of Liebfraumilch than the brandy actually preferred by Greene's famous character, decided to make a point last week. Although warned off and threatened, he headed for the town of Chanal, whose church had been occupied by Protestants and PRI followers since immediately after the 1994 Zapatista rebellion. Unlike Greene's whisky priest, who travelled these mountains on foot or donkey, the bishop arrived in a motorcade made up mainly of heavily-armed bodyguards in four-wheel drive vehicles.

With tension high, and 300 police and 50 Mexican soldiers watching the La Candelaria church, Bishop Ruiz opted at the last minute to avoid provocation. Followed by hundreds of the faithful on foot, he turned away from the church, headed for the simple wooden home of a local priest and held a prayer service in the garden, behind a rickety fence. "Without suffering, there is no true way. Experience tells us that better days will come," he told 800 Indian Catholics. He also accused the PRI of destroying icons in many churches in the same way they did during the persecution of the 1930s.

The Catholic church remained subdued by the Mexican state until only six years ago, when Mexico resumed relations with the Vatican and priests were finally allowed to appear in public in their cassocks. But even in Latin American countries where Catholicism is the state religion, scores of evangelical religions, including American temple cults, are making inroads. In northern Chiapas, virtually exclusively Catholic 30 years ago, villages are now up to 50 per cent Protestant.

Catholics in this region now believe the Mexican government - the PRI has been in power without interruption for 60 years - has begun supporting evangelical faiths in an attempt to divide and rule the native Mayans, whose lot has improved little in the five centuries since the Spanish conquest. Clashes between Protestants and Catholics were rare until the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, which pitted the poorest Mayan Indians against not only the caciques, or big coffee or cattle ranchers, but also against slightly better-off peasants who supported the PRI.

The situation exploded just before Christmas last year, when 45 Catholic Indian peasants, mostly women and children, were shot or hacked to death by a paramilitary group while attending Mass. Catholic priests said the gunmen were led by Protestant PRI supporters, from a group calling itself Peace and Justice, and aided by local police. Bishop Ruiz accused Adventists and Presbyterians of being behind the group, but later admitted that he had no proof. As tensions rose and foreign human rights workers flocked to theregion, the Mexican government began expelling foreigners. So far, more than 200 have gone.

Subcomandante Marcos, the pipe-smoking, balaclava-masked leader of the Zapatista guerrillas, has accused the government of creating the illusion of religious war to distract the world from what he said was a social and political issue. "The Chiapas problem has nothing to do with religion," he said. "The government has tried for four years to blame the Catholic church for the Zapatista uprising. It is seeking a war of extermination."