From ............. Associated Press

March 12, 1997

YAJALON, Mexico (AP) -- Thousands of people marched Wednesday to demand the release of two priests jailed in connection with the deaths of two police officers.

The arrests have raised tensions between the church and government and Roman Catholic leaders have declared that the clerics are innocent.

"We affirm that our priestly brothers had nothing to do with the accusations against them," the Mexican Episcopal Conference, a group of Mexican bishops, said in a statement. "We ask that they be freed immediately."

Separately, the demonstrators -- mostly Indians from the highlands in Chiapas state -- took part in Wednesday's demonstration in Yajalon, shouting slogans such as "Liberty!" and "Justice!"

The Revs. Jeronimo Hernandez Lopez and Jose Luis Gonzalo Rosas Morales were arrested Saturday and charged with being accessories to homicide in connection with the Friday shooting deaths of two state policemen during a confrontation with peasants.

A third priest has testified that Hernandez and Rosas were with him on Friday, not at the site of the shooting in Chiapas.

The demonstrators also demanded that Mexican authorities allow the return of three foreign priests, including an American, who have been expelled from Chiapas in recent years.

Government officials said they are not undertaking a campaign against church officials, despite claims by local priests of harassment and intimidation.

At least 3,000 of the demonstrators remained for a Mass that capped the march. Blue-uniformed police with rifles patrolled in pickup trucks but did not intervene.

Mexico's government Human Rights Commission said it was investigating the arrests. But state officials have denied there were political motivations behind the arrests.

"There's no war against the Church. This is a penal action for a crime that was committed," said Yariz Lopez, spokeswoman for Chiapas' attorney general.

Chiapas is the site of a smoldering three-year-old Indian insurgency, and has a history of land conflicts, one of which is at the heart of the violence that led to the priests' arrests.

Authorities also said the arrests were not connected to that insurgency, nor to a peace process to pacify the rebellion.