Martyrs and exiles in southern Mexico: the persecution, the history and the response

My three-part series, “Martyrs and Exiles in Southern Mexico,” about the religious intolerance in Chiapas, including my own photos, was originally published in World Pulse. Soon afterward, it was reprinted by Indian Life (published by Intertribal Christian Communications, Inc., of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada).

Part One

The murders of evangelical leaders

Confusion and many misconceptions have relegated the true plight of the evangelicals in Chiapas, Mexico, to a shadowy place away from accurate media coverage. The Zapatistas and the recent massacre in the village of Acteal have jumped to center stage, but neither is directly related to the persecution against Christians that spans the last thirty years. In an effort to focus on the evangelicals’ predicament and separate it from the other, complex issues that are churning that region, I travelled with a retired Mexican gentleman as my companion to Mexico’s southernmost state, bordering on Guatemala.
We drove toward San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, on a gray, rainy morning. As we ascended the mountain on a winding, two-lane road, it was shrouded in fog. A centuries-old, stone church sits in ruins at the entrance to the town, amid a crowded cemetery where all the graves are marked with black crosses. The taxi driver informed us that we were prohibited from taking photos once we entered the town. He also mentioned that he wouldn’t be allowed to pick up passengers in Chamula for his return trip to the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
We were traveling in a taxi because the Christian leader whom I’d just interviewed, Abdías Tovilla Jaime, is not permitted to enter Chamula. So he took us in his yellow Volkswagen only as far as the intersection where the road to Chamula begins. The “caciques,” or political, gangster-style bosses in that area, keep a careful watch on Tovilla, and on other evangelical leaders like him. If he tried to enter the town of Chamula, the caciques could kill him. Such killings in Chiapas occurred three times last year alone.
On October 9, 1997, at a meeting with the evangelical leaders and their opponents in the community of Cruz Ch’ot, designed to achieve a harmonious solution between the two sides, five caciques refused to recognize the declaration of unity and tolerance that was drawn up. Upon hearing of this disagreement, the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense (CEDECH), of which Tovilla is the director and legal consultant, sent a document to the state government as notification of the potential conflict represented by the five caciques.
However, the government secretary did not respond, and on November 12, Salvador Collazo Gomez was ambushed by the caciques from Cruz Ch’ot. Collazo’s body was riddled with fifteen bullets, and he died in the presence of his mother. His assistant, Marcelino Perez Lopez, was also killed in the attack.
Collazo was the treasurer of the Organization of the Evangelical Peoples of the Highlands of Chiapas (OPEACH). OPEACH, among other objectives, helps provide employment for the indigenous population of the highlands of Chiapas. When evangelicals are forcefully expelled from their native communities, they typically forfeit their belongings as well as their land. Without land, which is the livelihood of an indigenous family, they have no food or any way to make a living. Yet OPEACH assists not only evangelicals, but also all the indigenous people in that region, regardless of religious affiliation.
The secretary of OPEACH, Manuel Hernandez, was likewise attacked at the end of October, 1997, in the Terraplen Marketplace in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. (Both he and Collazo had previously been ambushed and injured in July.) The assailants were natives of Chamula who oppose the work of OPEACH. Due to the severity of his injuries, Hernandez was taken to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital, in an attempt to save his life. But his injuries were so grave that after two months of hospitalization, Hernandez died on December 29.
In January, CEDECH issued a statement that declares: “The worst thing in all of this is that the municipal authorities of Chamula knew of the planned attack, but nonetheless, the president (of Chamula) washes his hands of all this, saying he knows nothing, when in fact he himself backed these men.”
“CEDECH sent documents to the governor, but got no response,” says Tracey King, a short-term missionary from California who is working at the CEDECH office in San Cristóbal. She adds: “Justice is not being done. Our objective is that they don’t turn a blind eye (to these murders).”
Tovilla refers to Hernandez, who died December 29, as “the most recent martyr” among those who have been killed in Chiapas during recent years. The region’s “first Protestant martyr,” Miguel (“Cashlan”) Gomez Hernandez, has now become legendary, and the interdenominational seminary in Nueva Esperanza, on the outskirts of San Cristóbal, bears his name. He was kidnapped and brutally murdered on July 24, 1981. Before being hanged, he was tortured; his nose, ear, lips and scalp were cut off, his feet were burned from being forced to walk through fire, and his eyes were gouged out.
Miguel Cashlan was the first evangelical preacher in San Juan Chamula. Tovilla explains that sometimes he preached until one o’clock in the morning. He also preached at the market in San Cristóbal; it’s estimated that approximately 2,000 people were converted through his testimony. “That’s why the Chamulans thought that by killing him, they could prevent further conversions,” Tovilla says. But, of course, the outcome was just the opposite.
“The caciques don’t want the evangelicals, and they might kill us,” expresses a quote attributed to Miguel Cashlan; “so perhaps it is our fate to suffer as Jesus Christ did. They will burn us, but we will not be afraid.” Currently, according to Tovilla, CEDECH is aware of 35 orphans and five widows as a result of similar attacks. “Yet the gospel has grown; we are a suffering church, but victorious. The blood of the brothers has not been shed in vain,” Tovilla declares.
“Some advise me to buy a pistol (to protect myself),” he continues, “but if God wants us to die in this way, we know it’s not in the hands of the caciques, but in the hands of God.”

Part Two

“Caciques” rule the highlands of Chiapas

The region of San Juan Chamula, in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, has been a major source of hostilities against evangelical Christians for more than thirty years. Besides the very small town that bears the same name, which is nestled in a bowl-shaped depression in the mountains, Chamula also represents the largest municipality in the highlands region. It encompasses 87 other, separate villages or communities, each with its own heirarchy of “caciques” (or gangster-style, political bosses). These traditional, rural leaders usually control most, if not all, of the local businesses, governments and land.
The power of the caciques often keeps the rest of the community in a “state of virtual servitude,” stated Pedro C. Moreno, International Coordinator of The Rutherford Institute, during a U.S. Congressional hearing on worldwide persecution of Christians. This cultural legacy spans centuries. For instance, during the colonial Spanish era, the natives who failed to attend Catholic mass were whipped, and the caciques did the whipping. “For hundreds of years, they have exploited their own people of race and language,” says Abdías Tovilla Jaime, director and legal consultant of CEDECH, the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense. “(Modern) caciques are not interested in maintaining cultural values, but in their businesses, and their economic and political interests. They have imposed customs and festivals that are very expensive to celebrate.”
For example, everyone in each community is expected to participate in and contribute to the local, syncretistic festivals, which involves buying candles, fireworks and posh, a locally-made, hard liquor — all enterprises that caciques control. “In the state of Chiapas, the economy is dependent on the sale of ‘posh,’” according to Moreno. In this way, Tovilla says, the caciques “cause families to be indebted, even those without food or houses.”
Consequently, many of the indigenous people became seasonal workers in the coffee plantations on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, hoping to earn enough money to pay their debts. While there, they were exposed to evangelical Christians. A large number of them were converted, and they brought the gospel back to their communities in the highlands. “Thus, the Protestant faith is a new form of religion that upsets the interests of the caciques,” explains Tovilla. A substantial economic loss for the caciques is represented by the large number of people who no longer buy the candles, fireworks or posh.
As a result, Moreno said, “caciques resort to persecution,” which began to be documented in January, 1966, over thirty years ago. This persecution primarily has taken the form of forcefully expelling the evangelicals from their native communities, including the destruction of their homes and belongings. Evangelical believers also have been beaten, raped, kidnapped, threatened, jailed, ridiculed and forbidden to practice their religious beliefs. Many, too, have been murdered (see Part 1 of this series).
But the fundamental motivation behind the expulsions, according to Tovilla, is really not religious at all. Instead, he says, it is “economic, political, and agrarian, because Chamula has little arable land; so when (the evangelicals) are expelled, their land remains for the caciques.”
Between thirty- and thirty-three thousand evangelicals have been expelled from their own lands since 1966. The majority of them have resettled along the outskirts of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, due to its close proximity to Chamula. Now they live in neighborhoods with names like Paraíso (Paradise), Getsemaní (Gethsemane), and Nueva Esperanza (New Hope).
Yet expulsions have been officially prohibited since 1993, according to Tovilla. For this reason, the caciques have begun to use other tactics. “The face of the problem has changed. Now the caciques are terrorizing the people so that they leave,” says Tracey King, a short-term missionary with the Reconciliation and Mission Program of the Presbyterian Church USA, who is assisting CEDECH in San Cristóbal. Tovilla explains that the caciques have adopted “the armed method,” and that a large portion of the money that goes to Chamula ostensibly for public works is actually used to buy arms. “They can’t expel, but they can kill,” says Tovilla. However, he points out that the Acteal massacre in December was not directed against evangelicals.
Another aspect of their new tactics, which is a “useful means of control for the caciques,” declares CEDECH, is “withholding education (from) the children of the evangelicals. In some cases, this practice has been allowed to go on for more than four years.” Government authorities have not responded, and the schools in several villages remain closed.
And even though expulsions were officially “prohibited,” they still continue. As recently as December 12, 1997, ten evangelicals, including one pastor, were forced to sign a document stating that “by their own will they abandon the community in order to not generate more problems,” and that “having changed religion they violated an internal agreement.” Furthermore, the document states that “the assembly (of local leaders) declares that if anyone of the community changes his religion, he must abandon (the community) voluntarily to prevent generating problems of this type.” The document permits the evangelicals to visit their families in the village once a month, provided they do so “in a peaceful manner and without religious proselytism.”
This latest episode had begun on October 18, when 23 Presbyterians in the village of Saltillo (in the municipality of Las Margaritas) began to receive threats. Later that month, as they fled from the community, one of the men was detained and beaten. On December 8, the group returned to Saltillo for the purpose of reaching an “agreement with the rural authorities (caciques),” according to CEDECH. “But instead, they were imprisoned. On the fifth day of their imprisonment, December 12,” they signed the document “to officially guarantee their expulsion. …They are now living in the city of Las Margaritas, trying to survive with what little they have left.” A church there is helping support them, King says.
“It is especially grave,” states a report from CEDECH, “because there had been signs of growing tolerance and less violence. …One can only hope that it is an isolated incident…and not a renewal of the horrible religious persecution.” However, it was not an ‘isolated incident.’ Another evangelical family was likewise expelled from the village of Jolbón in San Juan Chamula. According to CEDECH, this expulsion “broke the existing peace agreements between the municipality’s caciques and the evangelical Christians.”

Part Three

One man’s response to religious intolerance

“When there is greater (religious) liberty, then God can send us to another place,” states pastor and lawyer Abdías Tovilla Jaime. He is director, legal consultant and founder of CEDECH, the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense, located in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico. In the meantime, 47-year-old Tovilla, a native of Chiapas, continues to handle the “matters of expulsions and religious intolerance,” as his business card says.
On the day that I met with Tovilla, he had just returned from a meeting with the new governor of Chiapas, Roberto Albores Guillén. This fact in itself demonstrates that CEDECH is a recognized participant in the process to secure reconciliation and peace in the state. During this meeting, Tovilla says, they talked about problems of persecution from the previous year, including the expulsions from Saltillo; the thirty children from San Juan Chamula who have been barred from attending school since 1993; and the widows of recent murder victims. “The government feels it is better if the church intervenes to unite the various factions and work toward reconciliation,” Tovilla explains. Toward that end, CEDECH helped sponsor the “Third Ecumenical Encounter For the Reconciliation of Chiapas” at the end of February in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Tovilla asked Albores Guillén to send a representative. The purpose of this event, according to Tracey King, a short-term missionary serving in the CEDECH office, was to permit dialogue “between the evangelicals and Catholics of Chenalhó (i.e., location of the massacre in Acteal on December 22, 1997).” Tovilla was one of the event’s coordinators. However, “as far as government representation, there was none,” states King.
Tovilla began this ministry as a volunteer in 1981, in response to the needs of persecuted believers. “Christian brothers arrived (in San Cristóbal) who’d been beaten,” he recalls. “They’d say, ‘Pastor, help us;’ so I had to do something, even though how to defend human rights was not something I learned in seminary.” In 1992, the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico made CEDECH one of its official ministries, with the slogan “For an integral, Christian liberty” (“Por una libertad cristiana integral”).
Consequently, there are four primary “roles” that CEDECH performs. First of all, it fulfills a legal function. For example, when massive expulsions occur (see Part 2 of this series), the initial task is to evaluate the case. Of course, if the expelled believers arrive beaten and injured, they are first given medical attention. (As a matter of fact, one of our objectives in traveling to Chiapas was to deliver a large box of medicines.) Next, the formal accusation is presented to the appropriate authorities because in nearly all cases, constitutional rights have been violated.
For instance, after Christians are expelled, they can only “return to their communities with many limitations; they cannot preach, sing, or even listen to evangelical music, or have meetings,” Tovilla says. “These are the conditions the caciques present, wanting them to continue to participate in their pagan rituals. But this is a violation of their constitutional rights.”
Carlos Martínez García, a Christian columnist for the newspaper Uno Mas Uno, asks: “Are perhaps the indigenous people prohibited constitutionally from the right to freedom of conscience? Should this right only be valid in the non-indigenous society? To maintain cultural unity, is it necessary to expel those who elect diversity? Is it so difficult to accept that there is more than one way to be indigenous?”
Second, CEDECH serves a pastoral and spiritual function. Many of the believers who have been beaten, jailed and expelled from their land are new converts, “just beginning to read the Bible,” as Tovilla says. So he helps them cope with these experiences that leave many traumatized. “Some have been tied to trees while their wives and daughters are raped in front of them. Children see their houses burned. Pregnant women have been forced to stay in a vacant school for three or four days without food because there was no more room in the jail.”
Salvador Lopez assists with this aspect of the ministry. Lopez is the treasurer of Agape Network (“La Red Agape”), which is a network of leaders from various denominations. He also is the pastor of a large evangelical church called The Divine Savior, located in Nueva Esperanza, a community of expelled believers on the outskirts of San Cristóbal. So Lopez helps coordinate relief efforts in the community. Aid is distributed—sometimes simply in the form of cornmeal for tortillas—that arrives not only from other areas of Mexico, but also from other countries.
Third, CEDECH performs an educational role. As the size of the congregation at The Divine Savior continues to swell, the church has spawned many daughter churches, which have been constructed nearby. Therefore, the upper floor of this church houses an interdenominational seminary that is part of the Agape Network. It was designed to help meet the leadership needs in all of these new churches, as well as in the outlying areas where the evangelicals have not been expelled. The seminary, of which Tovilla serves as director, consists of two small dormitories, a kitchen, and two large classrooms. They receive donated books. Since 1997, approximately 30 students have been coming from different ethnic groups and languages in southern Mexico.
In addition, CEDECH tries to meet the need for Bible courses in the indigenous languages. On the streets of San Cristóbal, the natives speak Tzotzil, not Spanish. So two part-time workers at the CEDECH office, Armando and Sebastian, are translating courses from Spanish into Tzotzil.
Finally, CEDECH fulfills a social and political function. Tovilla says: “We are not against the development of many different social groups to defend the rights of the indigenous peoples. The National Presbyterian Church supports this. What we do not support are the social groups that divide the communities due to political ideologies, which results in conflicts and bloodshed.” He points out that this was the cause behind the massacre in Acteal. “It was not an issue related to religious intolerance or expulsions, but purely political. The indigenous peoples are becoming ‘politicized,’” he says.
Furthermore, CEDECH assists in the economic development of the region. It provides agricultural orientation, and also helps with the sale of native crafts. Tovilla says he is looking for contacts outside of the immediate region in order to broaden the market for these items. CEDECH also is able to receive financial aid for needy families, as well as donations for scholarships at the seminary. The annual cost to sponsor a student is $850, for which contributions may be given either fully or partially.
Unfortunately, the persecution against evangelicals in Chiapas has been largely overshadowed by the Zapatista militant uprising. In fact, Emiliano Zapata, for which the militant group is named, was such a popular, Mexican folk-hero that his portrait appears on the ten-peso bill. However, the national policy of overlooking or ignoring the situation in Chiapas has proven to be a “costly” omission, says Tovilla.
After 17 years of responding to adversity and deprivation of religious liberty, Tovilla asks: “When will there be freedom to read the Bible? When will there be even a small evangelical church in Chamula?” His question, in part, is already being answered. One sign of hope and potential tolerance is the fact that the first Protestant church is under construction in the municipality of San Juan Chamula. Located in the village of Arbenza I, the project is currently suspended due to lack of funds. Yet CEDECH reports: “This is an incredible milestone for the evangelicals and one that no one imagined possible even a few years ago.”

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