Thursday, March 29, 2007

Open Doors: Mexico - Chiapas Christians Facing Expulsion, Persecution

Violence and Expulsions Continue for Chiapas Christians

Four evangelical Christians from the church “Growing in Grace” in San Juan Chamula municipality, 6.2 miles from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas state, were ambushed by a group of unknown armed men on January 31, leaving one believer in a serious condition.
Agustin Gomez, 21, Carlos Perez Gonzalez, 24, Andres Gomez Gomez, 15, and Santos Jiménez Perez, 13, from Nich’Te community, were driving home from San Juan Chamula after collecting water for their homes (they have no drinking or running water in their village) when unknown gunmen waiting on the road began shooting at them. The attackers then fled the scene.

Two brothers, Agustin Gomez and Carlos Perez, were hospitalized in San Cristobal. Carlos sustained five gunshot wounds to the chest and was treated for internal bleeding and shock. He remains in serious condition. Agustin was treated for gunshot wounds and then released.

A formal complaint has been submitted. The Indian District Attorney’s office has started an investigation to locate the suspects and charge them with aggravated assault and attempted murder.

Chiapas state is home to the worst cases of religious intolerance in the country. San Juan Chamula, nestled in the highlands of Chiapas, is the municipality with the most severe and long-term persecution of evangelical Indians, mostly from caciques, or powerful community chieftains. Caciques practice “traditionalist” religion, a semi-pagan mix of Roman Catholic beliefs and ancient Mayan religion.

Traditionalist caciques have proven especially vehement enemies of Christians because they see Protestant Christianity undercutting their control over local villagers. When villagers become Christians, they typically stop drinking posh, an alcoholic beverage produced by caciques and stop participating in pagan-like festivities, which results in a loss of income for caciques.
In the community of Galeana, La Independencia municipality, nine believers were jailed on January 20 for 24 hours for refusing to contribute money and time to the upcoming May 8 festivity. The Christians were released after the county’s mayor intervened and only after they had committed in writing to pay a fine, respect “the internal agreements” and contribute to “the social stability” of the community. The mayor also allowed the Presbyterian church, “Jesus, the Only Way,” to re-open recently following its forced closure by the same caciques.

In Huixtan, 65 Christians were ordered by local caciques to leave their homes in the Los Pozos area by January 6. The demand was issued because the believers refused to financially support the traditionalist Catholic festivities which they no longer participate in. Reynaldo Gomez Ton, pastor of Wings of Eagle Church, said, “They want to expel us because we are not willing to contribute to their festivities.”

The believers called for the immediate intervention of the state government and the Bureau of Religious Affairs to prevent their expulsion, and the government intervened in the case. On January 21, however, caciques forbid the evangelicals to go into the countryside to gather firewood for their homes. On January 30, several of these men arrived at the homes of the believers with picks and shovels and cut off the water supply to 10 evangelical families.
Christians are also being denied government benefits available for peasants through PROCAMPO (Program of Support to the Countryside). The program distributes fertilizers and herbicides to improve agricultural and livestock production.

Pastor Gomez Ton stated that Huixtan’s mayor, Javier Martinez Vargas, “has done nothing to prevent [the current threat] of expulsion.” Rather, he has said that “this act is a result of the habits and customs of the community of Los Pozos,” and that “[the caciques] should mind the religious freedom, the individual rights of the persons.”

Pastor Gomez Ton’s church has long been the target of attacks. Thirteen years ago, he and 10 other evangelicals, among them women and children, were jailed by caciques and their church building was destroyed. The church was destroyed again in 2003, and in 2005, two Christian women were raped by caciques.

The Indian pastor blamed former town councilor Delfino Mendez Ton for the abuses. Although an investigation was ordered by the District Office for Indian Justice, located in San Cristobal, “no investigation ever took place, and the case remained unpunished,” Pastor Gomez Ton said.

Open Doors has been supporting the legal defense of this case through the council of attorney and pastor Esdras Alonso, in an effort to put pressure on the authorities to exercise justice and religious tolerance. Even though the District Attorney’s office in the highlands of Chiapas has been formally presented with a complaint denouncing the aggression, it has not acted on behalf of the law, which grants religious freedom in the community and punishes the perpetrators of injustice.

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