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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) _ For five centuries, the Indians of Latin America have produced some of the world's most fervent Roman Catholics _ but not a single saint.

Pope John Paul II plans to change that Wednesday with the canonization of Juan Diego, the Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared in 1531. Then on Thursday he is to beatify two Indian martyrs of 1700, placing them a step from sainthood.

The ceremonies underline ``the recognition of Indians as peoples,'' Mexico's bishops said in a pastoral letter this month. They added that the newly honored figures ``can help us recapture the Indian origins and roots of our people.''

Not incidentally, the pope is reaching out to a sector of Mexican society in which Protestants are making rapid advances.

Catholics are now a minority in some heavily Indian districts of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, where the overwhelmingly Indian Zapatista National Liberation Army rebelled in 1994.

Fervent Catholics in San Cristobal, a tourist center in Chiapas' Indian highlands, are overjoyed by the canonization.

``Now that he is being canonized by the pope, he will be our protector, because God will give him strength,'' said Jesus Cristino Gomez, a Tzotzil Indian attending services at the city's cathedral.

The local bishop, Felipe Arizmendi, said the canonization of Juan Diego ``is a recognition of the dignity of the Indians.''

But he said it will take more than a new saint to halt the church's erosion in Indian communities. He said Indians must be ``subjects of the evangelization'' _ preaching and working in the church themselves rather than merely being preached to by others.

Yet the Vatican itself stepped in to limit Arizmendi's aggressive program for training Indian deacons, a project he inherited from his more-radical predecessor, Bishop Samuel Ruiz.

Church leaders, unhappy with Ruiz's left-leaning theology, were apparently concerned that the deacons were not supervised closely enough by priests and that married deacons were almost taking on the functions of priests.

Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist and historian of religion in Mexico, noted that none of the Mexican church's 132 bishops are Indians. Priests are spread thin and tend to be outsiders in Indian areas, he added.

Each priest in Mexico ``has to attend to about 8,000 worshippers,'' he said. ``A Protestant pastor has 400.''

While relatively few priests speak Indian languages, Protestant groups spent decades translating the Bible into even obscure Indian languages.

``The Evangelicals spent dozens and dozens of years ... working with these people and mastering their language, and the Catholic Church has not had that kind of personal contact in rural areas between priests and parish,'' said Roderic Camp, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who wrote a book about the Catholic Church in Mexico.

``There haven't been enough priests to have a local functioning parish,'' he added, saying some churches see a priest only once or twice a year.

Cultural problems also can hurt Catholic efforts to win over Indians.

Masferrer said many Indians ``find it difficult to understand a religious specialist who is celibate.'' Celibate people are often seen ``as incomplete'' in Indian cultures, he said. ``It is almost as if they have a defect.''

In addition, Protestants preachers generally avoid alcohol, which has contributed to poverty and domestic abuse in many Indian communities.

``Of all the pragmatic issues, I think alcoholism and its consequences is by far the most important,'' Camp said. ``That's been a very pragmatic benefit to those families that have converted.''

Esdras Alonso Gonzalez, pastor of the Wings of the Eagle Church in San Cristobal, questioned the sincerity of the pope in creating an Indian saint at the same time as he is restricting the naming of Indian deacons.

Other Protestant leaders shrug over the papal visit and say there's little chance conversions will be slowed by sainthood for Juan Diego, for whom they, and even some Catholics, say there is a lack of documentation that he existed.

``I think that having an Indian among the saints is an excellent strategy, but they would have had to find another Indian with a more solid biography so they could prove his existence,'' said Abner Lopez Perez, president of the Bible Society of Mexico.

Pedro Lopez, a young Tzotzil minister with the Church of Christ, was more blunt.

``They invented Juan Diego,'' he said. ``The ancient Indians here in Mexico didn't know anybody as Juan, or as Diego. They had Aztec or Maya names.''