Attacks in Chiapas continue despite religious liberty law

Mexican believers persecuted

By Lee Cuesta

More than 40 indigenous evangelicals have been expelled from their homes since early August, the victims of renewed religious persecution in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, in spite of new laws designed to protect religious rights.
According to a recent report by Abdias Tovilla Jaime, legal assistant for the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense, the attacks have been directed against not only individuals, but entire families, adults and children. Besides being expelled, victims have been subjected to physical abuse, incarceration, and threats. In fact, in an incident last July, according to Moises Ocampo Torres, more than 300 persons “were brutally beaten, put in jail and expelled from their communities of origin, taking away all their belongings and burning some of the houses.”
Ocampo states that the victims belong to the ethnic group Tzotzil. They have converted to evangelical Christianity due to the efforts of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico in Chiapas. Although the “expulsions” have occurred in as many as eight different villages, the refugees are residing in the town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. One of them states, “We don’t have clothes, food or money, and our families are getting sick.”

Religious motives cited

The recent persecution clearly has religious motives, as one of the victims, Cruz Patishtan, testified: “On August 6, 1993, the rural authorities met with us to ask us if we are evangelicals. As we can’t deny Christ, we told them ‘yes.’ Then, in the presence of about 100 people, they told us, ‘You’d better renounce your religion or leave the community peacefully. If not, you’ll have to leave while you’re being beaten by everyone in the community.’”
The authorities then bound the members of this group of five families and took them to the city hall in Chamula. “Before the mayor and the judge, they asked us the same question, and we told them that yes, we are believers in Christ, and we can’t leave the gospel nor our lands, because we’re not doing anything wrong.”
The mayor and the judge ordered the group to be put in jail the same day from noon until 8:30 p.m. Following their incarceration, they were taken to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where they gave their official statements. Finally, at 11:30 p.m., they were told that they were free to go, but “in order to avoid greater problems,” they decided to stay in the tiny houses of other refugees who are living in San Cristóbal.
However, on August 19, they returned to their homes to harvest some of the crops that day. But the authorities again beat and kicked the believers, tied them up, and took them to the city hall. They told the mayor and the judge that they had “ expel all evangelicals from the entire municipality, and if they don’t leave again, we’ll bring the 82 communities (of the municipality) in order to lynch them. And if they kill them, it won’t be our fault.”
Cruz Patishtan concluded his testimony: “In that moment...they began to beat us, my shirt was left bathed in blood, and they told us they’d give us a period of three days in order to remove our things and go into exile.”

New law ignored

Presbyterian churches throughout the country have responded with medical aid, food, clothing, and money, as well as with prayer and fasting. Nevertheless, this persecution has occurred despite the religious law in Mexico, adopted in 1992, which guarantees that each individual shall “not be the object of discrimination, compulsion or hostility as a result of his religious beliefs, nor be obligated to declare concerning them...nor be the object of any legal or administrative inquisition for having manifested his religious ideas.”
The law states that every Mexican citizen has the right “to have or to adopt the religious belief he pleases, and to practice, individually or collectively, the acts of worship or rituals of his preference.”
Unfortunately, as Ocampo observes, “Until now, the authorities have not done anything to resolve the conflict; meanwhile, almost all the refugees have problems of health, principally the women and children.”

Originally published on January 7, 1994.
Copyright, 1994, by Lee Cuesta