'Traditionalist Catholics' grudgingly sign accord after state officials quash their demands.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Local political bosses who had voted to expel 65 Christians from a small town near here grudgingly signed an agreement yesterday to let the evangelicals stay in their homes.
Evangelical pastor and attorney Esdras Alonso Gonzalez told Compass the town bosses (caciques) of Los Pozos, 29 kilometers (18 miles) from San Cristobal, showed up here for the formal signing of the accord armed with demands that put extra conditions on the terms they verbally agreed to on February 28.
Alonso said the proposal of the caciques and other “traditionalist Catholics,” who practice a mixture of indigenous ritual and Roman Catholicism, called for the Christians to pay for religious festivals plus fines for refusing to contribute in the past. The evangelicals’ refusal to help pay for and participate in the festivals, which include drunken revelry and what they regard as idolatrous adoration of saints, was the reason the town officials voted to expel them last Dec. 23.
“The caciques’ attitude was that they wanted the brothers to sign another document obligating them to contribute funds for past festivals, and for the next festival on May 3, and pay fines they had supposedly accumulated,” Alonso said. “But the state government did not allow it.”
The signing of the agreement by the caciques and Los Pozos Catholic leaders, bosses from the municipality of Huistan (to which the Los Pozos community belongs), evangelicals and state officials at 1 p.m. came nine days after traditionalist Catholics and civil authorities destroyed a Pentecostal church building in Ollas, a community of nearby San Juan Chamula municipality, on April 14.
“They destroyed the temple in Chamula, and the government feels very obligated to maintain calm,” Alonso said. “The state government is very committed now, because it’s not in their interest that the problem expand further. They left it clear that there would be full religious freedom.”
It remains to be seen, he added, whether the Los Pozos town bosses will follow through on the accord’s stipulation that they restore water lines and electricity cut off from some evangelical families since January 30.
“The caciques signed it, but we want them to go ahead now and fulfill it,” he said. “The state government officials also signed it, we’ll see if they honor it. Now they have to respect this document.”
The agreement also calls for local authorities to restore firewood-gathering rights and resume distributing federal food aid and fertilizers they have diverted from the Tzotzil Maya Christians.
Alonso said the signing of the accord could prove to be a watershed moment in Mexican human rights in that it sets a precedent for state authority to head off conflicts before they fester into decades-old, major confrontations. He told Compass the accord does not seek religious tolerance – which unduly assumes evangelical faith by nature can only be tolerated – but rather the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
“In the agreement,” Alonso told Compass, “we’re not asking for anything – we’re demanding a right that the brothers have by law.”
Los Pozos and other town officials throughout Mexico force evangelicals to help pay for and participate in the traditionalist Catholic processions and revelry based on a legal argument drawn from the Mexican constitution’s protection of indigenous “uses and customs.”
The constitutional article is meant to protect indigenous customs from government obliteration, said Victor Raul Flota, president of the Chiapas Bar of Christian Attorneys.
“The native traditionalist Catholics speak of ‘uses and customs,’ but in a completely different sense,” Flota told Compass. “It is supposed to refer to their language not being lost, or that the government not attack their cultural traditions – the work that they do, the way they do it. But when these caciques speak of ‘uses and customs,’ they’re thinking, ‘Here it’s custom to beat and fight, to rape and to jail people different from us.’”
Flota said the ignorance of local authorities is at the heart of the small town persecution of Christians.
“I remember in 2002, because I worked on a human rights commission, I was surrounded by these political bosses,” he said. “We almost came to exchanging blows. They’re completely ignorant.”
Nor can economic interests be dismissed. Los Pozos Alas de Aguila (Eagle’s Wings) church pastor Reynaldo Gomez Ton said the caciques and traditionalist Catholics benefit from the sales of alcohol and other items used in the festivals.
“They don’t want to lose the funds from the traditional customs, and this is what they want, that everyone have a single faith,” Gomez Ton told Compass. “But if we’ve accepted Christ, we have to continue in that faith. If they love and follow another god, then let them love him, but let’s be free. Let there be love, let there be respect between both faiths.”
Gomez Ton and his sister, Mercedes Gomez Ton, said their mother died in part from the strain of the suffering and threats the local authorities and traditionalist Catholics have meted out to the tiny minority Christian community.
“They threaten us with rape, and they threaten that they want to kill us,” Mercedes Gomez Ton told Compass. “They ridiculed and humiliated my mother, to the point of threatening that they wanted to kill her.”
Gomez Ton said her mother was among 19 people jailed for 24 hours after the traditionalist Catholics and authorities tore down their church in 2003.
“They don’t want us to change from their customs,” she said. “They jailed us, and when we wanted to clear things up, the authorities and the president of the [Huistan] municipality didn’t want to help us, because they’re on their side and didn’t want to grant us our rights.”
Copyright 2007 Compass Direct News