Calm before another storm?

Persecuted believers in Chiapas forgotten again

By Lee Cuesta

Mexico’s preoccupation with the Zapatista guerrilla army, both by politicians and the media, has overshadowed the other side of the Chiapas crisis: the 20,000 to 30,000 believers in Chiapas exiled “for professing the Protestant religion.”
The guerrilla insurrection in Chiapas that began in January, 1994, “serves to camouflage the matter of the exiled evangelicals,” declares Aaron Lara, pastor and member of the executive committee of the Confraternidad Evangélica de México, in Mexico City. “It has taken the attention away from the Christians who have been banished from their homes.”
Lara says that although they overlap, these are independent issues. He emphasizes that Ernesto Zedillo, the new Mexican president, “has not wanted any contact with the evangelical community.” With a hint of despair and frustration, Lara states, “we have not achieved even the slightest contact with Zedillo.”
The previous president, Carlos Salinas, now out of the country, had moved toward resolving the evangelical problem. In fact, Salinas had been instrumental in obtaining the resignation of the mayor of San Juan Chamula, who was involved in recent expulsions. (This mayor is thought to be the mastermind of an attack last September 29, in which three evangelicals were shot and killed, others were injured and raped, and houses were burned.) But federal promises to “intercede with the governors of Chiapas and Oaxaca in the matter of the expulsions for alleged religious motives” disappeared with the change in government.
Now, church leaders such as Lara worry that this conflict and the resulting hardships have been forgotten again. Instead, the Zedillo government is only focusing on one side of the Chiapas crisis, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). Arms and secret stockpiles of ammunition were discovered in the state of Veracruz, as well as in Mexico City.
Until April, however, attempts at dialogue had not been successful, despite the new “Law for the Dialogue, Conciliation, and Suitable Peace in Chiapas.” Late last year the Confraternidad Evangélica de México offered to be a “channel” of communication. Likewise, the Confraternidad Nacional de Iglesias Cristianas Evangélicas asked to be made part of the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the persecuted and expelled evangelicals remain ignored. Local “chiefs” (caciques) are often unable to reconcile the differences between traditional, social rules and modern, outside influences, according to a report from the National Commission of Human Rights. The fundamental issue, therefore, is one of control.
Consequently, tribal members who refuse to conform, such as evangelical believers, are attacked. The exiled believers live in areas called “belts of misery,” with names like New Hope, New Jerusalem, and Paradise.
“So,” Lara says, “it’s very probable that some evangelicals, by their own initiatives, have joined the ranks of the EZLN,’s impossible to verify or count them.”
Relative calm has prevailed in Chiapas this year. In a recent statement, the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, indicates that as of mid-March, “the hostilities and expulsions in San Juan Chamula have ceased.” However, the committee notes that, except during this current lull, freedom of religious belief, guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution, “has not been respected by local authorities and ‘chiefs’...who have persecuted, beaten, raped, and killed the native evangelicals.”
The committee adds that neither the governors nor the state congress have been able to act effectively against the “power groups” in San Juan Chamula, who have not complied with the National Commission of Human Rights regarding the expulsions.
Nevertheless, the committee says that the 584 indigenous believers who returned to their homes last August (prior to the September attack) “to date are still in their communities with liberty to practice their religious beliefs.” The report concludes, “Actually the situation is one of complete calm.” The only question remaining in the minds of many church leaders is, How long will it last?

Originally published on May 5, 1995.
Copyright, 1995, by Lee Cuesta