In remote Mexican villages, many abandon Catholicism Citing intolerance, some 'outcasts' join Protestants

November 01, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- Salvador Lope ## might have been bitterly confused when the Mexican government recently revoked century-old bans against the Catholic Church here in the name of religious tolerance.

The bans -- instituted to punish the church for its alliance with Spain before the revolution -- have not been enforced for decades. And in this remote mountainous region at the southern edge of Mexico, it's the Catholics who have been brutally intolerant.

"One day, I got a knock at the door," Mr. Lopez, a 35-year-old father of two, recalled, sitting at a rickety wood table in his cramped and dusty two-room shack. "About 20 people came into my house, beat me and then took me to jail. They told me that I had to renounce my faith and come back to the Catholic Church.

"I said no," he added, pounding his fist on the table. "They hit me some more and told me if I didn't leave, they would kill me and my family. My daughter was only 8 days old.

"I left."

Salvador Lopez is an "expulsado" -- an outcast, along with thousands of others from around his nearby native village of San Juan Chamula who have left the Roman Catholic Church to become Protestants.

He was attracted by the very Protestant evangelists whom Pope John Paul II referred to as "rapacious wolves" in an address to Latin American bishops a couple of weeks ago in the Dominican Republic.

But the Catholics of San Juan Chamula needed no incitement from the pope. They had long had their own way of dealing with what the pontiff referred to as "the pseudospiritual movements . . . whose aggressiveness and expansion must be faced."

"Belt of misery"

Over the past 15 years, more than 15,000 others from villages around San Juan Chamula have abandoned the Catholic faith. Some of the men were beaten or incarcerated without arrest warrants. Some of the women were raped. All had homes and belongings confiscated.

These "expulsados" now live in what is called "El Cinturon de Miseria" -- the belt of misery. It is a collection of ramshackle tin huts on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, a town of flat adobe structures inhabited predominantly by people of Mayan Indian descent.

The expulsados were once farmers in San Juan Chamula who worked plots of land and grew enough corn, beans and fruit to feed their families and to sell at local markets. Now each family lives on about $5 a day, selling everything from wool ponchos to intricately sewn tapestries to packets of chewing gum. Or they wander the streets, looking for odd jobs.

Their plight is shared by more and more people throughout Latin America as Protestant sects, generally with roots in the United States, continue to win converts. Demographers say the Protestant groups have converted 18 percent to 21 percent of the population in Brazil; 20 percent of Salvadorans; 18 percent to percent of Guatemalans, including the country's president; and 16 percent in Chile.

Although statistics from the most recent Mexican census show that about 90 percent of the country's 81 million residents are Catholic, researchers say most are not active participants, staunch believers or regular contributors to the Catholic Church. Protestant leaders claim 12 million followers in Mexico, and though some keep their faith a secret out of fear of repression, most are enthusiastically active in their churches.

The rapid growth of Protestant sects in Latin America was a main topic of discussion among Latin American bishops when they met with the pope last month in Santo Domingo.

"Like the Good Shepherd," he told them, "you are to feed the flock entrusted to you and defend it from rapacious wolves.

But the pope might have had places like San Juan Chamula in mind when he warned that "poor and simple people" turning to other religions are "looking for a religious meaning to life that they perhaps do not find in those who should be abundant examples of it."

The appeal of Protestantism

It is not only the difference in the way Protestants interpret the Bible that provokes the wrath of Catholics in rural Latin American villages. Protestantism disrupts the long-held cultural, economic and political traditions of poor villages. Those who refuse to see these traditions die fight back, sometimes ruthlessly.

Since the mid-1960s, Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses have gone door-to-door in this state's impoverished villages, encouraging followers to be more independent. The ministers teach people to read and solve basic math problems, how to grow healthier crops and how to get better prices for their produce at markets.

They have also persuaded many followers to stop drinking posh, a potent corn-based liquor that is an essential part of the Chamulans' ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is increasingly seen as a monolith more concerned about its own prosperity and political clout than about the miserable living conditions of most of its followers.

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