Priest holds key to talks with Mexico rebels

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The Independent Online
MEXICO'S southern state of Chiapas has changed little since Graham Greene toured the area in 1938, encountering or finding inspiration for characters, including the famous 'whisky priest', for his novel The Power and the Glory.

At that time, the local Indians, descendants of the Mayas, were being oppressed by the increasingly powerful party in power, now called the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the Roman Catholic church was being persecuted for supporting them.

The 'whisky priest' was on the run across Chiapas from the authorities and armed forces, finding refuge among the Indian peasants and holding secret Masses. To a certain extent, a sense of persecution of priests and mutual mistrust remain today in the southern state bordering on Guatemala.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, one of the towns taken by Indian peasant guerrillas on Saturday but retaken by the army late on Sunday, brings Greene's priest quickly to mind, although, when I visited him a few months ago, the bishop clearly favoured Riesling.

He is highly respected, in some cases worshipped, by the poverty- stricken Indians who flock into local churches to hear his sermons. The authorities bill him as a troublemaker with revolutionary tendencies. If fighting for the rights of Chiapas's people is making trouble, they are 100 per cent right.

He is one of the few people the local Indians, the vast majority of the population, really trust. The only whites around San Cristobal, apart from its many tourists, are wealthy landowners and businessmen who cruise between their haciendas and fincas in state-of-the-art four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Don Samuel, as he is known, seems wise to keep a walkie-talkie or mobile phone in his car at all times. Blamed for past disturbances, he is well aware he has enemies. He will not say so outright but leaves little doubt that he questions the official version of the 'accidental' killing of a cardinal in Guadalajara last year. The authorities said the cardinal was killed by drug-traffickers who mistook him for someone else. Many Catholic churchmen privately say they believe he was assassinated for wielding too much power.

The authorities are wary of dealing with the churchmen but know they have little choice if they wish to mediate with the 2,000 or so guerrillas who rose up in Chiapas at the weekend to the old revolutionary cry of 'Viva Zapata'.

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