A Mexican state’s despised Protestants gain

Many converts are expelled by Catholics
Boston Globe, July 21, 2002
http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/202/nation/Off-site Link

By Marion Lloyd, Globe Correspondent, 7/21/2002

SAN JUAN CHAMULA, Mexico – On a recent Sunday morning, several dozen Mayan farmers packed the newly inaugurated Prince of Peace church, where a Protestant pastor discussed the importance of good works in the local Tzotzil language.

There was little remarkable about the service, except that it was being held in San Juan Chamula, a community as famous for its religious intolerance as its unusual blend of Roman Catholicism and ancient Mayan rituals.

Since 1974, more than 30,000 members of this fiercely traditional community in the southern state of Chiapas have been expelled for rebelling against local customs. Most were Protestant converts who refused to take part in the elaborate and costly Catholic rituals that form the backbone of Chamulan culture.

After Brazil, Mexico is home to the world’s second-largest Catholic population – 88 million, according to the 2000 government census – and is viewed by Rome as a key hedge against the spread of US-based Protestant groups into the rest of Latin America.

But efforts by communities like San Juan Chamula to discourage conversions, even by expelling converts and torching their houses, have done little to stem the spread of Protestantism in Mexico. Instead, such campaigns – in violation of Mexico’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion – appear only to have fueled conversions by making Catholics appear intolerant.

The Protestants have made particular inroads among the country’s 10 million Indians. They woo converts by bringing doctors and schools to impoverished indigenous communities and by distributing Bibles translated into most of the country’s 62 Indian languages. According to census figures, 7.3 percent of Mexicans over the age of 5 are Protestants, up from 4 percent in 1990. Chiapas, with a 30 percent indigenous population, has a larger share of Protestants than any state at 23 percent.

”It’s ironic that where the persecution [of Protestants] is the greatest is where they have made the most converts,” said Abdias Tovillo, a Presbyterian minister and leader of a Chiapas-based group that defends Protestants’ rights. Tovillo put the number of Protestants in the state at 40 percent, arguing that many converts were afraid to declare their religion to government census-takers for fear of being expelled from their communities.

Catholic church officials, aware that they are losing adherents, are increasingly looking to win back Indian communities. Crucial to that effort is Pope John Paul II’s Mexico trip from July 30 to Aug. 2 to canonize the region’s first indigenous saint, the Aztec Juan Diego. According to Catholic lore, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego on a hilltop outside Mexico City in 1531, 10 years after the Spaniards conquered Mexico. The Virgin Mary’s purported apparition set the stage for the conversion of millions of Indians to Roman Catholicism.

The fact that the pope has insisted on making the trip despite his failing health is seen by many as a sign of a new focus in Rome on Latin America’s Indians.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday July 23, 2002.
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