The United States’ southern neighbor remains a home of violence against evangelical believers.

While debating a proposed free-trade agreement with Mexico, many North Americans have noted that country’s burgeoning economy. What many politicians and journalists have failed to see, however, is a continued human-rights problem in southern Mexico.

María Gómez stands on her porch and wipes the tears away. She is grieving the loss of her husband, Melecio. Other evangelicals grieve the loss of friends or homes. Despite recent state government efforts to curb interreligious violence in southern Mexico, indigenous evangelicals continue to face assault, stonings, and eviction from their homelands; some even face martyrdom.

And while new hope seems to exist in the formation of a new and unprecedented alliance of Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders who oppose the persecution, many doubt that change will come very fast.

The Persecution

In June, Presbyterian lay preacher Melecio Gómez, 32, was brutally killed in a hail of gunfire and his body hacked with a machete while a young son and a daughter, who were accompanying him, scrambled for safety (CT, Aug. 17, 1992, p. 52). Gómez’s crime was to defy village leaders intent on intimidating and ultimately expelling evangelicals from the small hamlet of Saltillo in the state of Chiapas.

In May, believers in Amatenango del Valle were forced to leave the town when local leaders reportedly urged villagers to ransack believers’ homes. Soon after, the entire congregation of some 80 members was expelled from the village. The fledgling congregation, just over a year old, appealed to state authorities. Today an unprecedented treaty brokered by the state governor’s office has allowed believers to return home.

But believers say they are constantly harassed. Their fields are being vandalized, their few remaining belongings stolen, and their farm animals destroyed.

Still, Làzaro López, a leader of the Amatenango congregation, affirmed to CHRISTIANITY TODAY: “We will continue to preach the Word of God. We’re firmly committed, and we are happy to be preaching the gospel.”

In March, leaders of the Chamula tribe—a dominant ethnic group in southern Mexico that is noted for its violent history—proposed to evict some 1,000 Protestant believers from 86 hamlets encompassing the Chamula municipality. In April, the festering conflict resulted in an armed assault on the village of La Hormiga, forcing hundreds of believers to flee to neighboring communities.

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Those most susceptible to the indigenous tradition of evictions are the Protestant evangelicals. Tribal leaders claim the new faith brings discord into their communities and can only be dispelled by evicting the perpetrators. Though nominally Catholic, these mountain communities are more accurately described as “Christopagan.”

On the surface they appear to be Catholic, but their religion is a syncretistic form of Catholicism with aspects of animism and layers of ancient religious tradition. A centerpiece of the modern indigenous culture is the celebration of festivals, involving the consumption of enormous amounts of alcohol, the purchase of religious icons for the Catholic church, and the promise of “cooperations” toward community projects.

Tribal members who embrace Christ and form Protestant congregations immediately become pariahs in their communities. They usually refuse to participate in festivals if they are required to consume alcohol, to donate funds toward the purchase of icons, and to take on community responsibilities that conflict with their faith.

Aside from economic overtones (the tribal leaders monopolize the liquor and soft-drink bottling industries), there are also political overtones. In the past, tribal leaders have dictated political allegiances and promised politicians votes in exchange for favors. When large segments of a community convert to Protestantism, the village leaders lose control over them and can no longer guarantee political power bases.

Over the past two decades, some 24,000 believers have been forced or have chosen to leave their communities for the sake of their faith. But even in light of continuing cycles of persecution and eviction, the number of new believers joining Protestant congregations is multiplying.

In Amatenango, where harassment continues and the memory of May’s violent eviction is still fresh, an elderly woman pronounced joyfully in late July that she had recently joined the congregation because “God healed me.”

According to Christian anthropologists in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city in the heart of the indigenous mountain communities, many Indians are converted through the healing power of the gospel. Virtually all leave Catholicism.

Roman Catholic Bishop Felipe Aguirre, of the Tuxtla Gutiérrez diocese in Chiapas, concedes that in recent years the church has atrophied to some 67 percent of the total population. “This is alarming to us,” he said.

However, Protestant leaders claim evangelicals number at least 50 percent of the state’s population, with entire indigenous communities embracing the Protestant understanding of the gospel.

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A Government Effort

Such a radical demographic shift is not without consequence. Despite recent efforts to curb evictions, authorities do not seem to have the political will to enforce the law. In late April, Chiapas Gov. Patrocinio González and the state congress called a statewide consultation to study the eviction problem.

At the conference, the governor proposed a revision to the state penal code criminalizing the act of expulsion by making it punishable by a maximum eight-year sentence. At the same time, a congressional representative of the Chamula tribe proposed that evictions be legalized and recognized as a tool for preserving Indian culture.

When asked how the congress would proceed on the two proposals, the president of the Chiapas State Congress, Roger Grajales, said, “There is a total contradiction [between the two initiatives]. If we were to approve the initiative of the indigenous representative it would legalize the expulsion. That would be monstrous. On the other hand, if we were to approve the initiative of the executive—to create a new crime—we could provoke a violent reaction by the Chamula community.”

Protestants believe they are caught in a Catch-22 situation. If the congress refuses to act on the governor’s initiative, the indigenous communities will take that as a license to act with impunity.

Further aggravating the situation was a statement by the governor to the press only two weeks after presenting the initiative criminalizing evictions. In an interview with the Tuxtla Gutiérrez ES! newspaper, the governor brazenly contradicted himself, saying, “I do not believe the expulsions … are a crime.”

The former leader of the national Presbyterian church, Jorge López, noted, “This [statement] is incredible. The constitution clearly states that no one shall be persecuted or discriminated against for his or her … religion.”

A New Alliance

The Roman Catholic Church over the years has remained largely silent on the issue, except when its own clerics have faced expulsions for petty differences with indigenous leaders. But this is expected to change.

A positive result of the April consultation on evictions was the formation of a joint Protestant-Catholic committee to study the issue and work toward resolution. Among committee members are the elite of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in southern Mexico, including the bishops of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Tapachula, and San Cristóbal de las Casas.

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Attorney Pablo Salazar, counsel to the Protestant-Catholic committee, said, “Providentially, the union with the bishops will present a common front against the expulsions.”

Others, such as attorney Abdias Tovilla, leader of the Presbyterian State Committee for the Defense of Evangelicals in Chiapas (CEDECH), are less optimistic. “In a large part of the state … the presence of the [Catholic] clergy—perhaps not the hierarchy, but at the base—in certain respects has been the catalyst for the persecutions.”

For María Gómez, the progress that may come from a new alliance between Protestants and Catholics will do nothing to ease the nightmares of her 12-year-old son and teenage daughter, who watched as assassins cut down their father with uncommon brutality.

As María stands on the steps of her dilapidated shack, the tears roll down her cheeks. “I’m very sad,” she says. “But all the brethren are helping me harvest our fields. Thank God. Things are calm for now, but the chief has threatened to kill Melecio’s brother.”

For Christians in Saltillo, theirs is but a brief reprieve in the ongoing cycle of persecution that is the reality of indigenous life in Chiapas.

By Chris Woehr, News Network International in Chiapas, Mexico.

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