Believing People in Resistance await Pope Francisco in Chiapas
Banner reads: Believing People of the southeast with Pope Francisco against mining and for the defence of our Mother Earth.
By: Enriqueta Lerma Rodríguez
February 2, 2016
Beyond the condemning discourses about the Pope’s visit to Chiapas, accusing the event of being a form of control of the masses that responds to the need to recuperate the faith of the few faithful Catholics who are left in the region, faced with the increase in the number of Evangelicals and in the desire of government authorities to show the “good Indian,” it’s pertinent to analyse the relevance that the Vicar’s presence acquires for an important percentage of indigenous Catholic believers. If the visit to Tuxtla could be omitted from a profound analysis it doesn’t come out the same with the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where the largest percentage of the population is indigenous, with a diversified rural economy and grouped together in a diocese that for more than fifty years has shown particularities of significant social resistance.
The influence of the diocese in the region is highly important if one remembers the theological and political tradition inherited from Bishop Don Samuel Ruiz, who presided over it from 1959 to 1999. Many of the political, indigenous and campesino organizations, which currently contend in the state’s political arena have their germination in the 1974 Indigenous Congress, where, for the first time, secular catechists from the different diocesan regions had the opportunity to discuss the common problems about which they complained: mistreatment, discrimination, exploitation on the fincas (estates), dispossession of their land, abuses from those monopolizing crops, a lack of school and health services, threats and violence. The 1974 Congress, organized by the Diocese, was the inaugural parting of the waters for a new stage of resistance and empowerment in the communities, generating campesino movements and the formation of numerous groupings demanding agrarian redistribution.
One could argue against the importance of the Diocese of San Cristóbal with the decrease of Catholics in the state. Nevertheless, while it’s certain that religious diversity has increased in Chiapas, provoking social problems of expulsions and religious intolerance, it’s also necessary to say that despite that the Catholics continue to represent the most numerous religion among the Indigenous population. The data provided by the INEGI in its latest document on the theme, 2010 Panorama of Religions in Mexico, contradicts the diagnostics that point out that Indigenous Catholics have been exceeded at 60%. It is possible to observe that in a population of 1,209,057 speakers of any indigenous language, Catholics represent 50.35% with 608,819 followers; on the other hand, the total of Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Protestants, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Jews and Muslims is 450,257, in other words 34.25%; the rest don’t point out any religion. Nevertheless, in opposition to the heterogeneity that religious secularization represents, Indigenous Catholics, even with their doctrinal particularities, compose a more cohesive sector, the majority subscribed to the universal church, which has permitted an important number of them to mobilize constantly in order to work in favour of social justice and for the defence of native territories. This organized sector is recognized as “Pueblo Creyente (Believing People);” a name that Bishop Samuel Ruíz designated in his time for the indigenous people of faith that demonstrated in the streets against the unjust incarceration of the parish priest of Simojovel, Joel Padrón, who in 1991 would denounce the numerous human rights violations in the northern part of Chiapas. He was accused of conspiracy against the government, criminal association, plunder, robbery, threats and provocation, among other crimes. Pueblo Creyente’s tenacious resistance attained his freedom despite all the state pressure.
Pueblo Creyente, now with more strength, has added itself to different processes of resistance and solidarity. However, the history of struggle and congruence for the social welfare was made palpable years ago. For example, in the 1980s, during the period of Guatemalan refugees, through the diocesan Solidarity Committee, camps, basic education courses, workshops for artisans and for analysis of the reality were organized and steps were even taken for the definitive stay of some Guatemalans on lands acquired by diocesan agents. These same agents accompanied the organized return to Guatemala, earning the respect and gratitude of thousands of former refugees forever, a recognition that not even the United Nations High Commission for Refugees attained.
The mediation of the Church of Don Samuel has been so important in the region and so polemical that during the juncture of expulsions of “Christians” in San Juan Chamula, the diocese condemned the acts perpetrated in said municipality, promoting dialogue. That also provoked the expulsion of the Catholic Chamulan followers of Don Samuel and the rupture with the Diocese of San Cristóbal, since the expellers opted for the Orthodox Catholic Church. Within this context the Diocese promoted religious tolerance and supported the re-accommodation of those expelled, thereby showing their first practices towards ecumenism.
The very same territory of this diocese has been the scenario of the Zapatista Uprising, which is not a simple fact: it’s enough remember the notes of Jan de Vos, who Subcomandante Marcos assured in an interview that the meeting between the guerrillas and the catechists of Don Samuel, in the middle of the Jungle, permitted the first ones to transform their “squared” vision of the world into “round.” It’s not too much to say that the tijwanej method of “receiving and returning the word to the community” and “discussing among everyone to interpret the reality and to carry out actions” is a contribution from liberation theology to Zapatismo and not the inverse. At the same time, it’s appropriate to remember that the rebellion in the Cañadas (Canyons), had its germ in the migration of indigenous campesinos, supported by the Jesuits, to the Jungle from the fincas of Ocosingo, Altamirano and other places and that many catechists and church agents were accused, after the Zapatista Uprising, of being promoters of the revolt, as Andrés Aubry, Carmen Legorreta and Xóchitl Leyva point out. The nomination of Samuel Ruiz to participate in the dialogue with the federal government as part of the CONAI was also a demonstration of the analytical ability of the church’s agents and of the trust that the communities had deposited in the Catholic Church, especially in its bishop.
Among other work of great importance the diocese also founded the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre; the civil association Economic and Social Development of Indigenous Mexicans (DESMI, its initials in Spanish), in charge of incentivizing and advising agro-ecology production in various communities; and the Support Commission for Unity and Community Reconciliation (CORECO) that since the Zapatista Uprising had the charge of promoting the resolution of inter-community conflicts through dialogue and promoting peace.
The response to the diocese’s attempts at pacification and justice, however, has awakened little sympathy in the state and federal governments. It’s appropriate to point out the case of Father Miguel Chateau, the parish priest of Chenalhó, extradited by the federal government after having denounced the characteristics and type of training had by the paramilitaries who perpetrated the massacre of Las Abejas in Acteal. The response was the deportation and condemnation of the diocese for its intervention. Stories like these are repeated in all corners of diocesan territory. There are the recent threats against Father Marcelo Pérez of Simojovel, who is opposed to the increase of organized crime, the cantinas, the sale of drugs and prostitution. Pueblo Creyente supported him with a pilgrimage of dozens of kilometres through various municipios, given that his “enemies” offered a reward of up to a million and a half pesos for his head. Pueblo Creyente’s request that Father Marcelo meet with the Pope to tell him the crime situation in Chiapas was blocked from the current top leadership of the San Cristóbal Diocese: he will not be able to interview with the Pope, although he DID achieve being present at the papal mass as animator of the event.
Beyond the complicated conjunctures, which are not few, it is also necessary to point out the important work that the diocese carries out on a daily basis. Organized in its seven diocesan zones (central, south, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Chab and southeast), the pastoral agents, secular deacons and catechists, carry out different tasks: through the social pastoral work they attend to specific problems in matters of human rights; gender equity –from the women’s commission, CODIMUJ-; youth advisory; support to migrants, among other actions. With the recently created Mother Earth Pastoral they seek to coordinate efforts in defence of territory, opposing the sale of land, the monoculture of non-indigenous species, the use of genetically modified organisms, the construction of highway and hydraulic mega-projects, the mining extraction, dispossession of land and migration provoked by the poverty that disarticulates the family nucleus. At the same time Pueblo Creyente demonstrates with pilgrimages against the structural reforms, against the genocide reflected in the country’s clandestine graves, against the disappearance of students like in the Ayotzinapa case, against femicides and against the private guards that subject the peoples. On this list of objectives Pueblo Creyente has also added the project of the New Constituent, feeling proud that Bishop Raúl Vera is one of its principal promoters.
Pueblo Creyente nurtures its spirituality starting from Indian theology and continues –to the grumbling of the diocesan leadership and against the suspension dictated from the Vatican- ordaining permanent indigenous deacons: men from the community who serve at the side of their wives and with the support of their families the ministry of imparting the sacraments and of reading the word of God in light of the times; men and women committed to their communities in the project of achieving spiritual liberation, and pledged to eliminating social oppression. Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest challenge that Pueblo Creyente has is the equal proliferation of currents inside the diocese, where renewed and charismatic Catholics are opposed to the tasks of the pastoral agents who seek to construct a liberating church. The dispute inside Catholicism in San Cristóbal is between these two projects: a liberating church or a conservative one. An example of this contradiction was observed this January 25. Diocesan authorities were opposed to the pilgrimage in memory of the fifth anniversary of the death of Don Samuel Ruiz, with the justification that it was better to channel efforts to the Pope’s visit, but Pueblo Creyente, loyal to their pastor, who they call Caminante,  went to remember his work and honour it with the continuation of his work. During the event differences were evident between the current bishops that seek to discourage the Pueblo Creyente organization. For example, before starting the mass, the faithful that showed hand-painted signs in defence of territory were asked to put away their banners and slogans.
Among other questions, this is the context that the Pope will encounter during his visit to Chiapas: a Catholic community in resistance starting with the base church communities and a sector of Catholics who seek to finish off Don Samuel’s project. Because of that the controversies are now harsh and unpleasant in San Cristóbal, where the “coletos”  feel excluded because the Pope decided to meet only with eight indigenous for sharing food.
The Pope’s visit in San Cristóbal without a doubt represents a key moment for Catholicism in the diocese of San Cristóbal. Pueblo Creyente hopes that he has knowledge of the problems that affect the weight of the indigenous population in the region, that he knows about the work that they have carried out in favour of justice and for the defence of their original territories, that he is witness to the importance that the permanent indigenous deaconship holds for the communities and that he authorizes their ordainment. They hope that the balance inclines in their favour and they attain giving continuity to the path traced by jTatik Samuel Ruíz. And surely the people of faith hope that what they cried out in chorus to Felipe Arizmendi when he started his participation in the fifth anniversary of the death of Don Samuel happens: “We want a bishop on the side of the poor, we want a bishop on the side of the poor!”
 Caminante – a walker or, one who walks, a wayfarer
 Descendants of the Spanish invaders
Originally Published in Spanish by Desinformemonos
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Re-published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee