From ............. WORLD magazine

[ P.O. Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802 ............. wldmailbag@aol.com ]

FEBRUARY 3, 1996

pgs.20-21

INTERNATIONAL ............... MEXICAN WINTER

EVANGELICALS ARE FROZEN OUT OF CHIAPAS NEGOTIATIONS

By Mindy Belz

When Zapatista rebels showed up last week to sign a preliminary agreement with the Mexican government, they brought their trademark black ski masks but left important factions in their region behind.

Ever since the rebels took arms against the government two years ago, demanding autonomy from Mexico City and justice for beleaguered coffee farmers and peasants, evangelicals in the region have been caught in the middle. Unable to work within the Catholic status quo and unwilling to devote themselves to Comandante Marcos, the Zapatista leader, Protestant believers have been viewed with suspicion by all parties. Worse, they have been subjected to persecution and turned into desplezados, or refugees, for failing to choose sides.

Even as World Fellowship of Reformed Churches representatives met with Mexican leaders on behalf of evangelicals, one evangelical was murdered and two others kidnapped in the mountain town of San Juan Chamula late last year. At least five more deaths have occurred since then in an ongoing pattern of violence against Protestants.

Evangelical teaching has taken off in Chiapas as it has in no other state in Mexico. In 1970 there were 900 Presbyterians in the state; according to the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, there are 400,000 today.

Presbyterians and Pentecostals are the two largest evangelical groups and together they comprise more than 60 percent of the state's population, while the national average is more than 80 percent Roman Catholic.

The eagerness of new Protestant believers to form churches and exhibit a reformed lifestyle stirs resentment in villages dominated by the [Roman] Catholic Church and village bosses called caciques. Caciques often hold licenses that enable them to extract fees on everything from soft drink vending machines to the sale of votive candles at [Roman] Catholic altars.

Families who first of all quit attending the [Roman] Catholic Church, then abstain from religious festivals where kickbacks from the sale of liquor and other licensed items benefit the village leaders, all threaten the economic stranglehold of the caciques. Some evangelicals who refuse to attend the festivals have reported being arrested and harassed.

Chiapas is also the most poverty-stricken Mexican state and contains the greatest concentration of illiterate citizens. Many areas Iack basic services like electricity, running water, and drainage. At least four Indian groups have their own lauguage and don't speak Spanish. In 1994 families from the heavily forested areas, primarily evangelicals, fled their homes rather than join Comandante Marcos's army. Since they were accustomed to coming to the town of Las Margaritas periodically to sell coffee and other products, many settled there temporarily, living in shelters provided by the city or by evangelical churches. At least half have now returned to their homes and to an uneasy co-existence with rebel forces.

The rebels launched their uprising Jan. 1, 1994, the same day Mexico agreed to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada. In a few brief weeks of fighting, 145 people were killed before government forces called a ceasefire.

The rebels, who represent the Indian groups, have pursued their cause largely through peaceful means since then, but military tensions have remained high.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army controls a number of routes and villages. Negotiations continued with only near-success last year; Zapatista demands for reforms of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party [known by the Spanish abbreviation, PRI] at the national level were met with government promises to provide educational television by satellite to the region.

But this month the elusive Marcos emerged from his jungle stronghold to turn over his AR-15 automatic rifle and 45 caliber pistol to the Red Cross, signaling a bend in the road. "This is an act of peaceful will and a gesture that will contribute to a solution to the problems of the country," said Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who has helped mediate the peace talks.

The signing of a preliminary agreement, by Marcos deputy Comandante Tachos, followed on Jan. 19. What it resolved, according to a government statement, were demands to give the Indians more rights to elect officials according to local custom and to adopt more autonomous judicial practices. The rebels were not granted property rights they sought as the government continues to safeguard its oil rights in the petroleum-rich state. Evangelicals were not at the bargaining table, so their concerns weren't even discussed, let alone resolved, by the agreement.

Leading up to the signing, a team of missionaries along with American and Mexican clergy traveled to San Andres Larrainzar, site of the negotiations, to meet with negotiators on both sides and to see the prospects for evangelicals firsthand. They hoped to serve as ombudsmen for Protestant believers who had not been granted a place at the table.

Larrainzar sits atop a majestic string of mountains at 6,000 feet, where peasants in brightly colored Mayan clothing harvest corn off sheer precipices and strain against loads of firewood. Arriving at the town plaza, the delegation was greeted by side-by-side shrines to Jesus and Comandante Marcos, and a metal detector. They passed through security to the [Roman] Catholic church where 18 Zapatistas, led by Comandante Tachos, awaited their first meeting with evangelical representatives.

Evangelicals were able to discuss incidents of persecution while Zapatistas aired general grievances about the discrimination and suffering of the Indian people and their need for jobs and education. Bringing the two sides together, oddly, were Sen. Pablo Salazar, an evangelical who heads the government's commission on the negotiations, and [Roman Catholic] Bishop Ruiz, a strong proponent of liberation theology and a father-figure to the Indian groups represented by the Zapatistas. Members of the delegation had information that he had condoned persecution of evangelicals, but it was not in evidence that day.

According to Eric Perrin, a South Carolina pastor who is president of the World Fellowship of Reformed Churches, the Zapatistas are obviously influenced by both liberation theology and Marxism. "But they are not a communist movement," he said. Another delegate, Cecilio Lajara, prayed for the Zapatistas and for the bishop at the meeting's end, but no concrete agreements were reached.

Later the delegation visited a nearby refugee compound where 300 members of a Pentecostal church now live. Like others, they were run from their homes during fighting and cannot now afford to return. Or, their homes are gone.

The delegation also visited a nearby group of 10 Presbyterian families living in a one-room house. Children were asleep on the concrete floor and adults would later sleep outside in the mountain air. Six months ago these families had tried to establish a church in their village, five miles away. Thugs, they said, broke up one of their meetings and hauled men outside to beat them. A police report only led to more violence: Two of their homes were burned and most of their homes were looted. They were brought by their assailants in two trucks to their current quarters and have not had the resources or the will to return. Despite the easing of tensions among government offficials, Catholic establishment and Indian rebels, it's clear these families have not yet found an ally.

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[Picture captions]- 1] Table manners: Zapatistas negotiate with the government. 2] Evangelicals are viewed suspiciously by the majority culture: Zapatista settlers watch inaugrual ceremonies for the new Indian cultural center. Both photos: Scott Sady / AP

WORLD - FEBRUARY 3, 1996 pages 20-21

SWIMMING UPSTREAM

BY ELLEN S. BARNETT

Pescadillo means "little fish." It is the name of a very poor section on the outskirts of Ometepec, one of the largest towns in the Costa Chica area of Mexico. There, the Pacific coastline south of Acapulco runs nearly west to east.

Just after the Sept.14 earthquake, I visited Pescadillo. This quake,coming exactly 10 years after the devastating Mexico City earthquake, did little damage to major cities. But natural disaster is but one assailant evangelicals face in this rural area. Much harder to cope with is the man-made conflict between evangelicals and [Roman] Catholics.

When the group of Protestant believers in Pescadillo first wanted to build a church eight years ago, the plan was attacked by a group of [Roman] Catholics in the village. Eventually the Protestants were able to build an adobe church. However, when they began to build a more permanent structure with a foundation and concrete block able to withstand earthquakes and the hurricane season, things turned nasty again.

After gathering materials, digging foundations, and laying steel girders, the trouble began. Thirty [Roman] Catholics, instigated by the local [Roman Catholic] priest and headed by his assistant, attacked the structure, breaking up the concrete block and sabotaging the girders. They went to work on the old building as well, carrying benches and other furniture out to burn before the police arrived and members of the congregation successfully chased them off.

The church finally was able to get papers proving the property is properly registered and proceeded on the federal level with charges against the priest and others. Church members have been helped by an article in a Mexican political magazine with pictures showing the assistant priest leading the attack on the construction site and a local traffic policeman with a machete cutting one of the wooden supports of the old church.

In nearby Llano Grande there is a small group of new Christians who were excited when young people from Acapulco came to lead a one-week Bible school in their village. Regrettably, the Bible school dates coincided with a village celebration where liquor flows freely and the village establishment profits from the festival. The teens had to flee the scene, and local church leaders were thrown in jail for upsetting traditions.

Some [Roman Catholic] priests have a hand in this; for many years they have been the biggest influence in the area, and some do not like to see their turf invaded. Recent changes in Mexican law that allow religious leaders to vote and hold office have given them license to think they can do what they want again.

Durinq my fall visit to Pescadillo, I walked from the damaqed church to a neighboring lot, where only a clothesline stretched across a leveled sit had been a home. The Avelino family, members of the church, had an adobe structure for sleeping and a kitchen made of wood and palm a little higher on the lot, separated from the home.

When the home was destroyed by the quake, all the family moved into the kitchen. One of the daughters, Eva, has leukemia. She previously had separate quarters but affer the earthquake was squeezed in with the rest of the family. She contracted a very serious infection and was in an Acapulco hospital at the time of my visit. Doctors sent her home soon afterward, and though she lives, they have given her no hope of recovery.

She is another little fish swimming against the current of poverty and persecution in Costa Chica.

Miss Barnett serves with Mission to the World in Acapulco, Mexico.

WORLD - FEBRUARY 3, 1996

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WORLD magazine Masthead - FEBRUARY 3, 1996

"The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof;

the world and they that dwell therein." PSALM 24:1

Publisher: Joel Belz Editor: Marvin Olasky Managing Editor: Nickolas S. Eicher National Editor: Joe Maxwell National Correspondents: Roy Maynard International Editor: Mindy Belz

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Contributors: David Chilton, William H. Smith, R.C Sproul Jr, Gary Thomas, Peter Wehner, Margie Haack Associates : Larry Burkett, Charles Colson

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