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Mexican Evangelicals Find Grace With Catholics

In formerly intolerant Chamula, two religions are now sitting down and talking

Manuel Perez Gomez stands with his back to the bullet holes piercing the exterior of his modest cement house. It is not just a figure of speech to say that he has put behind him the violent events that led to those wounds.

Instead, Mr. Perez looks out over this verdant and rolling section of the Chiapas municipality of San Juan Chamula toward the hilltop where he has started building the first Evangelical church in this ardently traditional Roman Catholic community.

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He sees progress.

"A year ago, I was almost killed by people who felt threatened by change," Perez says. Last July, his house, with him and his family inside, was surrounded and shot up by Chamulans demanding he renounce his recent conversion to an Evangelical religion. "Now I can sit down with some of my Catholic friends over a soft drink, and tell them a little about the church I'm going to build," he says.

Local bosses rule

San Juan Chamula has been synonymous with intolerance, religious persecution, and the dictatorial rule of caciques, or powerful local bosses, ever since more than 30,000 mostly Evangelical Chamulans were expelled beginning in 1974 from their lands and homes by the caciques and the Chamulans supporting them.

In what was a form of ethnic cleansing before the term was coined, the expelled Chamulans fled primarily to nearby San Cristbal. They were not just Evangelicals, however, but also Catholics who rejected the hybrid mix of traditional Catholicism, Indian religion, and local custom practiced in Chamula's church.

Both groups had incurred the wrath of the local bosses by rejecting the town's peculiar mix of economics and culture that requires families to pay large portions of their generally modest income for the candles, liquor - either commercial or locally prepared posh, or distilled corn - and other elements of Chamula's strictly enforced festivals and traditions. In most cases the caciques were, and continue to be, the distributors of the candles residents are required to burn and the liquor and soft drinks they are required to drink.

Yet despite the deep wounds of lost homes, split families, and even deaths, today there are growing signs that Chamulans are prepared to live together in peace, and that a case that has stood out as one of the worst examples of human rights violation in Mexico can be resolved. If it can be, then some Chiapans insist that Chamula could actually end up an example to other communities in the state of Chiapas, where intolerance and a tendency to resolve disputes with violence remain the rule.

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"What we are striving for in Chamula is adherence to a new culture of respect for diversity and universality," says Juan Carlos Bonifaz Trujillo, president of the Chiapas state Congress, which last November created a "reconciliation commission" made up of players from all sides in the Chamula conflict.

"We need to reach the point where there is respect for local tradition and culture at the same time as each individual's guaranteed rights are upheld, and if we can do that in Chamula then it can serve as an example," Mr. Bonifaz says. "If we can't, this is a problem that could spread elsewhere in Chiapas."

Among the accomplishments officials cite is the fact that since the reconciliation commission was created, Chamula - which extends over several square miles of rural Chiapas farmland - has been peaceful. Massive expulsions that occurred as recently as 1993 have stopped, as have the kidnappings and killings that sporadically shook the community. In addition, some reparations have been paid for property lost or damaged in various violent incidents. About 4,000 of the Chamulans expelled over the years have returned to their homes.

"We have to be fair, there has been much progress," says Abdias Tovilla Jaime, director of the State Committee for the Defense of Evangelicals of Chiapas and a member of the reconciliation commission.

Still, one thorny and potentially explosive problem threatens to reverse the advances: the refusal of several Chamulan elementary schools to accept into their classrooms the children of Evangelical families. About 300 children were barred from schools for either part or all of this school year after Catholic parents, acting on the caciques' behalf, refused to let them in.

This month, accords were reached under which all children will be allowed into local schools in September. But mindful that similar accords earlier this year were not respected, Mr. Tovilla's organization and other Evangelicals say they will occupy the schools if the accord is not obeyed when the new school year opens.

The school issue strikes at the heart of a controversy over how the state has handled the Chamula problem. At least since November the state has preferred dialogue over confrontation, even if that has meant that certain constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as access to education, were temporarily violated. Others have pressed for a show of force to impose the rule of law.

"Mexico City [the capital] tells to go in and apply the law, and the people who clamor for their infringed rights are correct," Mr. Bonifaz says. "But there is no guarantee that imposing a remedy would get us further along to a lasting solution, when in fact it might set us back." Noting that many displaced Chamulans no longer even want to return to Chamula to live, he says continued dialogue without confrontation can lead to a resolution.

Dissatisfied with the state's careful response, the Evangelical community took the case to the human rights commission of the Organization of American States. But the federal government rejected any OAS "intervention" in the issue, claiming not all local and national options for resolving the problems of Chamula have been exhausted.

And while the state's approach may be bearing some fruit, there are still forces that oppose the kind of broad accord, including the free return of Evangelical families to their land, that would certainly break the local caciques' hold on Chamula's population.

Evangelicals divided

The Evangelicals themselves are divided over whether they should even participate in the reconciliation commission. And Chamula's municipal president, Enrique Lunez Patishtan, continues to refer to them as "the emissaries of foreign influences that made our community sick."

Reigning from an office dominated by a candle-lit shrine, cases of Coca-Cola, and bottles of brandy, Mr. Patishtan says he has nothing against anyone's "innocent" children, only their parents. He has agreed to the accords to allow Evangelical children back into schools in September. "A house divided is a sad, conflictive place to live," he says. "It is better that those in disagreement with the family's cherished traditions leave."

But Perez, now better known by his friends as Manuel "San Juan," says he has nothing against tradition. "I think traditions are very important," he says, pointing to the traditional Chamula cross he keeps in his house. "I just don't want anyone telling me I have to drink his liquor. It should be my right to refuse that."

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