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Guatemala’s Maya Indians Hope for Peace in New Year

July 30, 1996

KOJBA’L, Guatemala (AP) _ Following the steps of ancestors whose roots date back some 3,500 years, Maya Indians circled a pyre of candles and incense as they asked ancient gods for help in a world of modern strife.

Thirteen times the priests danced around the fire, welcoming Monday’s start of the Mayan new year.

``We ask the gods to bring peace to Guatemala. We pray to the ancient ones to protect our Mayan nation,″ high priest Roberto Poz Perez said.

As he spoke in Spanish and Quiche _ one of Guatemala’s 22 Maya languages _ rain swept over the mountainside rock altar at Kojba’l, 70 miles northwest of Guatemala City.

Poz sprinkled perfumed water on the hands of the holy men and women in an act of purification. Moving around the circle, the priests bowed and kissed the ground to invoke the goodwill of the gods for the forthcoming year.

Hopes run high that the government and leftist rebels soon will sign a peace accord to end the 36-year civil war that is Central America’s last and longest.

Upward of 150,000 lives have been lost; at least 440 highland Indian hamlets have been razed.

Maya Indians represent more than two thirds of Guatemala’s 10.6 million population yet 80 percent live in poverty. It is a part of the oppression that Mayans have endured since the Spanish Conquest of Guatemala 503 years ago, Poz said.

``Today we live in a modern system of slavery that is convenient to those who have power over us,″ he said in an interview. ``They want to keep us down, which is why they do not teach us to read or write _ to maintain control.″

Among Indian women, 72 percent are illiterate, compared with 48 percent of Guatemala’s adult population.

When Indian activist Rigoberta Menchu won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, Mayans throughout Guatemala shared in her success.

Menchu recently said in a radio interview that an accord recognizing indigenous rights and identity signed at peace talks last year will bring about even greater progress.

``The peace process was a determining factor in awakening an ethnic conscience,″ she said.

Maya Indians, she said, seek respect, and state policies that reflect the reality that Guatemala is multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural.

For hundreds of years, Mayans were forced to hold religious events such as Monday’s celebration in secret. Such practices were condemned by the Catholic Church as pagan.

The new year celebration known as Wajxaqib’ B’atz is held every 260 days. Each day of the year has special significance: the gods are believed to grant a distinctive ability to children born on a particular day.

It is expected that children who were born Monday will grow up to serve the community as spiritual leaders.

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