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Traditional Beliefs, Religious Freedom Collide in Mexico

August 24, 1996

SAN JUAN CHAMULA, Mexico (AP) _ For nearly 25 years, evangelical Christians in this small district have been beaten, raped and driven from their burning homes. At least 15,000 people have fled.

The converts to Protestant denominations are victims of a clash with a traditional Indian culture that is suspicious of outside influences. Political and economic disputes only feed the religious conflict.

One of the most promising efforts in years to solve the violent struggle has collapsed with the ouster of a local leader who bowed to state demands to permit the first Protestant church. Enrique Lunes Patishtan resigned Aug. 12 as municipal president after being beaten by traditionalist residents.

His successor, Florencio Collazo Gomez, was inaugurated this week in a traditional Maya ceremony, accepting the staff of leadership and drinking home-brewed corn liquor. He promised to seek reconciliation, but said he foresees no solution in dealing with evangelical Christians.

``The voice of the people is the voice of God, and that is what we are going to follow,″ Collazo Gomez said shortly after thousands of traditionalist Chamulans in the main plaza chose him leader by acclamation.

Thus far, the voice of the people has led traditionalists to drive at least 15,000 people from Chamula’s scattering of villages since 1972.

``The situation is very dangerous,″ said Rev. Abdias Tovilla Jaime, of the State Committee for the Defense of Evangelicals in Chiapas.

The refugees live in crowded slums on the hillsides above San Cristobal de las Casas, where folk hymns from crude Protestant churches often waft along the muddy tracks between the houses. They say their religion offers freedom from the alcoholism and poverty that often are products of the ancient faith.

State government officials are embarrassed by their inability to stop the religious conflict.

The harassment and expulsions clearly violate Mexico’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, but a crackdown on traditionalists might violate the government’s promise to respect traditional Indian cultures.

Chamula is one of the most famous Indian cultures in the Americas. Its fierce attachment to a Tzotzil Maya tradition has made it a favorite of anthropologists _ and sometimes a headache for state officials.

Maya cultures often stress consensus and unity. Traditionalist leaders here claim evangelical converts will destroy the fabric of their culture, which has survived repeated assaults since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors nearly 500 years ago.

At the heart of that culture is a religion blending Roman Catholicism with ancient Mayan practices. At community celebrations, vast amounts of money are spent and vast amounts of a ritual corn liquor consumed.

The Tzotzil Indians who worship in Chamula’s white-plastered adobe church rarely let a priest enter the sanctuary. They pray to the saints inside, lighting scores of candles and burning incense on a tile floor strewn with pine needles. Mumbling repetitive sounds, they drink bottles of cola and sacred local alcoholic drinks.

Some analysts say divisions between the evangelicals and traditionalists are rooted in economic disputes and competition for scarce land in the poor, densely populated countryside.

``The evangelicals stop buying candles, incense, rockets, flowers and corn liquor required by the traditional festivals,″ said Father Pablo Romo of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center, run by the Catholic diocese of San Cristobal.

``Those businesses are run by the local political bosses, who see their power diminished.″

Trying to ease the tension, evangelicals stopped construction of their first church in Chamula, but say they will press to resume building.

``The people don’t want any temple built,″ warned Mariano Gomez Lopez, a ruling party official from Chamula who lost an ear in the Aug. 12 conflict. ``They have never accepted any other religion and they are not going to.″

But Tovilla, of the evangelical committee, argued that those who violently oppose the new church are in the minority.

``Many people say they don’t want any more problems,″ he said. ``They say they want to sell their automatic rifles and buy hoes and machetes.″

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