April 6, 1994

Associated Press

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) -- The warnings to the Roman Catholic bishop appeared mysteriously on churches one morning, shortly after rebel and government negotiators left town.

As mediator for peace talks between Indian guerrillas and government officials in southern Mexico, Ruiz has been called "Commandante Samuel" and "the red bishop" by conservative detractors.

Conservatives have long accused Ruiz of being a communist for his devotion to liberation theology, the doctrine that exhorts priests to show a "preferential option for the poor."

But threats against Ruiz have risen since the New Year's uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army, said the Rev. Gonzalo Ituarte, parish priest for San Cristobal de las Casas, one of several towns in Chiapas state initially occupied by the rebels.

The bishop and fellow clergy have emphatically denied involvement with the rebels.

Although most calls for the bishop's removal have been withdrawn, Ituarte said a climate of tension persists. Ruiz now travels with four armed bodyguards.

Accusations against the [Roman] Catholic Church are common in strife-torn areas of Latin America, where clergy influenced by liberation theology often find themselves at odds with those in power, risking violence and even death.

[while other Roman Catholic clergy support those in power, as they have done for centuries .... JP ]

Archbishop Oscar Romero, like numerous nuns and priests suspected of leftist sympathies, was murdered during the 12-year civil war in El Salvador in an attack blamed on right-wing death squads.

Deflecting criticism has long been a way of life for the balding, bespectacled bishop, who has championed the rights of Indian peasants in Mexico's most backward state for 34 years.

Last year, there were moves to have Ruiz transferred after he gave Pope John Paul II a pastoral letter blaming Chiapas' wealthy classes, the government and its ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party for social inequities in the state.

A new round of attacks against the church began after the uprising, with layworkers accused of rebel organizing, and nuns harassed by ranchers for caring for wounded rebels at one hospital in Altamirano.

Ruiz has condemned the violence, which killed at least 145 people before a Jan. 12 government cease-fire. Rebel supporters in remote communities are now reviewing a peace proposal reached in talks -- mediated by Ruiz -- in the town's 16th century cathedral.

But while most clergymen deny rebel sympathies, like Ruiz they defend liberation theology, which sprang from a 1968 conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia. It says clergymen should show a preference for the poor in their ministries.

The bishops condemned the region's social inequities and called for creation of Christian base communities, through which priests and layworkers could teach religious tenets and make parishioners socially and politically aware.

For more than two decades, rebel groups throughout Latin America have recruited from those communities, which are naturally disposed to demand change.

In Mexico, leftist groups from the northern city of Torreon with experience in community organizing began working with church layworkers in Chiapas as far back as 1974.

Shortly after the uprising, Ruiz told a congressional committee that the so-called Torreon Group apparently took advantage of church organizing and "in a very short time had made use of our infrastructure."

But he said that was not the work of the church.

Several hundred of the thousands of layworkers who minister to remote Indian communities became radicalized and new groups sprang up, demanding rights and services for long-neglected Indians.

Frustrated by repression against the group and those they were trying to help, some organizers opted for armed struggle, Ruiz testified.

Partial transcripts of the private testimony to the committee were published last month by the respected news magazine Proceso.

But Ruiz has said those seeking to assign blame for the uprising should not look at him or the church, rather at the conditions Chiapas Indians have endured for centuries. "There is a tendency to blame the catechists and other religious people" for revolutions, Ruiz said in January. "But it is the source of the problem that has to be taken care of.

"The church raises the consciousness of individuals," he continued. "Then, if they make an historic decision, that's their option."