Huichol mobs wielding machetes and clubs in western Mexico's Jalisco state have expelled 80 evangelicals from Agua Fria village, threatening to burn the Christians and refusing to allow their return unless they recant their faith. The mobs reacted against evangelicals' shunning of Huichol native religion, which encourages taking hallucinogenic peyote.

Statutes in the village of Agua Fria, where most of the nearly 1,000 residents practice a mix of traditional Huichol animism and Roman Catholicism, specify that residents may live in the village only if they practice Huichol culture, defined in part by religion. On August 14 the mob targeted all Agua Fria evangelicals, which included members of Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, and Apostolic Faith churches. In February, Huichol traditionalists torched the home of evangelical Hermelinda Vazquez de la Cruz. Severely burned, she escaped with her children and now uses a walker, confirmed Mark Schultz, an evangelical missionary in Porvenir, Baja California, who ministers among Huicholes.

Schultz said an increasing number of Huicholes are becoming Christians. The Huichol leaders typically expel only individuals or families for converting. In 30 years, Schultz has heard of only three Huichol evangelical groups being forced from their homes.

In 2002, Huicholes of Mezquitic, Jalisco, expelled the town's evangelicals, prompting Jalisco's government to intervene, Compass Direct reported. Schultz told CT that his church in Porvenir is still supporting those who relocated to Tenzompa village in Jalisco, helping them to erect a new church building.

Generally, such violence in Mexico is prompted less by religion than by money. Persecutors often aim to protect the liquor-store profits of local caciques or political bosses. Because converts quit buying alcohol, mass conversion would bankrupt the caciques.

Vern Sterk, associate professor of missiology and evangelism at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan, ministered for 37 years among Tzotzils in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, about 900 miles southeast of Jalisco. Sterk says the Huichol dynamics are similar to those at play across Chiapas. "The idea that community bylaws require them to practice native religion has been the basis of all persecution in Chiapas," Sterk said. The cultural elements at stake—hard liquor in Chiapas and peyote in Jalisco—are not distinctly Roman Catholic, he said, so it's safe to conclude that the Catholic Church is not behind the persecution.

As in Chiapas, Huichol traditionalists are accusing the Agua Fria evangelicals of not respecting "culture." Sterk said, "This is a tough one, since it is hard to help indigenous leaders see that drinking and drugs are not really a part of their true cultural values."

Over many decades, Chiapan villagers persecuted indigenous evangelicals and expelled some 30,000, many of whom emigrated to San Cristobal de las Casas, where Sterk lived. Today, however, expulsions are rare. Chiapas's state government was vital to resolving the problem, Sterk said. "The sooner there can be some government intervention that will allow some dialogue, the sooner expelled Christians can respond in love and respect for their culture and people."

Related Elsewhere:

Past CT articles on Mexico include:

A Peacemaker in Power | Evangelical governor sparks fresh hopes for lasting peace in troubled Chiapas. (April 24, 2001)
Healing the Violence | Presbyterians, Catholics try to reconcile as expulsions persist in Chiapas. (July 25, 2000)

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