Conflict has arisen between Catholics and Evangelical Christians in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. Catholics who belong to a pacifist group called ‘Las Abejas’ (The Bees) in the municipality of Chenalhó issued a press statement on March 8 in which they called upon the Mexican government and the international community to seek justice for an act of vandalism against a Catholic place of worship and faith formation. It was on the morning of March 7 that catechists and other members of the Catholic community found that a door to their hall was burned. According to their statement, gasoline was used as an accelerant. The incident occurred at the parish of San Pedro Apostol Mártir in the village of Puebla.
The statement (see here) said that the community had hoped that peace would return to the area, following the consignment on February 26 of the chapel and land to the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas by the government of Chiapas. The statement went on to say, “In view of the incident at the faith formation hall, this confirms once again that there is no peace or harmony in Puebla. Once again we accuse both the municipal and state authorities for not being willing to resolve for once and for all the conflict that arose over the Catholic property on April 29, 2013.” The statement said that Catholics expelled from Puebla fear returning to their village until their safety is guaranteed.
The press release was referring to an incident in which Evangelical Christians and Presbyterians affiliated with Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were accused of violently expelled some 17 families of Tzotzil Mayas from Puebla. The approximately 100 Catholic Tzotziles took refuge in the nearby village of Acteal when their church was destroyed by Evangelicals. These families returned to Puebla to begin their coffee harvest, which then sparked tensions with the local Evangelical Christians. The Tzotziles depend on their coffee trees to add income to their otherwise sparse subsistence agriculture.
After negotiations between the various churches and the local government, the seized property was given over to the Catholics. Religious leaders, both Catholic and Evangelical, were witnesses to the ceremony on February 26 when the land was officially deeded over to the Catholic diocese. The ruined church is yet to be rebuilt.
Chiapas State Government Secretary Eduardo Ramírez Aguilar also witnessed the turning over the property. Ramírez Aguilar said that the conflict “has not been easy” to resolve but added that the signing over of the property is a significant step. As Catholic Bishop Enrique Díaz Díaz and Evangelical leader Jacobo Hernández Hernández listened, Ramírez Aguilar said that both Catholics and Evangelicals seek to do good works but called on the Evangelical community to respect the government’s judgement and allow Catholics to rebuild their ruined church. The government has declared that it will indemnify the Catholics of Puebla for not only their burned church, but also their homes and other properties destroyed and looted by Evangelicals. Nonetheless, Catholics and human rights organizations point out that the culprits for the destruction have yet to be prosecuted.
Chenalhó is no stranger to violence. It was on December 22, 1997 that paramilitary forces in league with the Mexican government attacked members of the “Las Abejas” pacifist Catholic group at Acteal and killed 45 Tzotziles. A group called ‘Mascara Roja’ (Red Mask) was cited. Human rights investigators found that several pregnant women had been bayoneted or stabbed in the abdomen to ensure that their babies would die too. Prosecution of the crime took years and remains uncertain. Of the 75 Red Mask paramilitaries jailed for the Acteal Massacre, 69 were released by August 2009 because of irregularities committed by prosecutors. Many of them have returned to Chenalhó. According to Las Abejas, some of the paramilitaries who participated in the Acteal Massacre are natives of Puebla. One of them is Jacinto Arias, who was mayor of Chenalhó Municipality. He was in jail for 14 years and since returned to the community. Víctor Hugo López Rodriguez, a local human rights activist, drew a connection between Arias’ return and the eviction of the Catholic families.
The Acteal Massacre took place as the Mexican government continued to confront the Zapatista Army National Liberation (EZLN), which had seized several towns in Chiapas on New Years Day 1994. Grievances of the impoverished Tzotziles over injustices at the hands of the government and non-Indian landowners exploded into violence when the Mexican army and paramilitary groups organized by local ranchers fought elements of EZLN. Fierce fighting and bloodshed continued until mid January 1994 when a peace accord was negotiated by Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruíz. A tense stand-off has reigned since then, punctuated with spasms of violence. The Tzotzil communities of Chiapas have seen considerable strife that has pitted Catholics and those following traditional Maya cults against Evangelical Christians, who frequently enjoy support from local government and foreign churches.