Bishop comforts Mexico's poor: In the first of two articles, Phil Davison reports from San Cristobal de las Casas on the efforts of a Catholic cleric to end the abuse of Indians' rights

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THEY PACKED into a white- stone hilltop church to hear his words. The group of Indian peasants - men, women and children - stretched far beyond its open door, people kneeling in the aisles all the way to the altar where a dozing black-and-white mongrel dog did not look at all out of place. The women were dressed in a hand-embroidered rainbow of colours, shawls pulled over their hair, many unable to understand the Spanish language the bishop spoke. But they were well aware that, despite his white skin, he, like God Himself, was on their side.

Even the Spanish-speaking peasants may have had trouble following Samuel Ruiz, Catholic bishop of this picturesque town near the Guatemalan border, as he warned in a quiet voice of how the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between Mexico, Canada and the United States would merely widen Mexico's north- south divide and bring 'more hunger and greater misery' to the Indians. They may not see Nafta as economists see it, but their responses after the Mass showed that they had a clear image of an evil spirit that could bring them only further despair.

In the second row, a young woman unselfconsciously breast-fed her child throughout the sermon. Bob Dylan himself would surely have been moved had he heard the group of ragged Indian youths with accordion, fiddles, mandolin and tambourines launch into an local Indian hymn to the tune of Blowin' in the Wind.

'To know You will come, to know You will be there, handing out bread to the poor,' the congregation sang. In the land that inspired Graham Greene to write about his 'whisky priest', Bishop Ruiz drank only the communion wine - although the younger priests who joined us for lunch afterwards had no trouble emptying a few bottles of Rhineland white and Chilean red. During the Mass, local Indians, in half-a-dozen languages, prayed for 'the imprisoned . . . those who have died . . . for all the Indian peoples . . . for peace in the world . . . for our enemies'.

They were referring to the caciques (local big landowners and businessmen, some themselves Indians) protected by the authorities, whom they blame for abuses from beatings to wrongful imprisonment, torture and expulsion from their homes and plots of land.

Bishop Ruiz, although from the north of Mexico, has led this mainly Indian diocese for 33 years and speaks at least three of the Indian languages fluently. To the Indians - they prefer the term 'indigenous people' - he is a legend. To the Mexican government and the many institutions it controls, he is a thorn in the flesh.

He speaks out against the abuse of the Indians, saying their standard of living has not improved since Cortes first landed in Mexico in the early 16th century, while their human rights are systematically abused. He is passionately critical of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's Instititutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has ruled locally in Chiapas, as well as at the national level, for more than six decades.

'The system in which we live violates human rights,' he wrote in a pastoral letter to mark the Pope's stopover at nearby Merida this month. 'Those in power are drinking our blood. We are cheated and humiliated,' he wrote on behalf of the Indians. 'There is repression in the countryside and in the towns. They take our lands and they send the police and army against us. There is general corruption among the authorities. Justice serves the wealthy and the dominant political ideology.'

Strong words. But few Indians, indeed few honest Mexicans, would disagree. 'The problem is one of structure. Change must begin at the popular base. The Indians must realise their own value and learn to defend themselves and their culture.'

It is statements like these that prompt claims by PRI national and local officials that Bishop Ruiz is not only over-indulging in politics but is implicitly inciting, or even already involved, in armed insurrection. Don Samuel, as the Indians call him, denies such allegations, though in roundabout language that leaves some doubt as to what form he thinks 'basic structural change' should take.

The bishop, whose cathedral on the zocalo (main square) of this tourist-frequented town houses the Fray Bartolome de las Casas human rights group, speaks out strongly against continuing expulsions of Indians from their homes and land by local caciques. In most cases, the reason given for the often violent expulsions is that an Indian family, or sometimes a single family member, has converted to Protestantism.

It is a fact that thousands of Indians have converted in recent years but the expulsion issue, which has forced an influx of refugees to shacks on the edge of this town, is complex. Many Indians say they were driven from their homes for trying to organise resistance to the caciques, who control the lucrative trade in alcohol and soft drinks in an area where the latter often take the place of potable water. Those who resist are often wrongly accused of 'converting'.

Bishop Ruiz and many Indians are concerned at the spread of alcoholism in Indian communities, mainly from the consumption of pox (pronounced posh), a corn-based firewater sold by the caciques.

Domingo Lopez Angel, 40, from the Chamula region in the lush hills above here, said he and his brother converted to Protestantism in 1968 when they were teenagers. 'In 1974, the persecution began,' he said. 'They confiscated my hectare of land where I grew maize and beans and forced me out by threatening to kill me.'

Mr Lopez was put in prison for 57 days last year, jailed on trumped-up charges after organising a body called Criach, the Council for the Dignity of the Indians of the Chiapas mountains. 'After I went on hunger strike for 27 days, they released me,' he said. 'They still want to kill me, but I am not afraid.'

Gustavo Lopez Mariscal, head of the church-led Episcopal Commission for Indigenous Mexicans, summed it up: 'Here in Chiapas, the Indians are used by the authorities as tourist objects, not as people in their own right. The ruling party also uses them when it needs to draw a crowd for a politician's visit.

'A major problem now is that more and more are migrating to the cities, especially young girls who set off looking for work as maids but often end up as prostitutes. The first thing Indians do when they reach a big city is change their clothes, stop speaking their language, then start denying they are Indians for the sake of getting work. They know that Indians are classed as third- class citizens so they shed their culture.

'They have to organise themselves,' said Mr Lopez Mariscal. 'We are trying to teach them that they must be the protagonists of change. They have to realise their own worth, promote and defend their own culture, value their own language.'

Monday: A 'Shining Path' in Mexico?