Priests seen as key to Mexican crisis

January 17, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

LAS MARGARITAS, Mexico -- The Rev. Mauricio Olvera was accused of organizing a violent rebellion against the government and almost thrown out of his church several months ago. A gunman, backed by more than 200 residents, arrived at the church and told him that he had 30 minutes to pack his things and leave.

He denied the accusation, refused to leave and closed the door.

On New Year's Day, the threat of a rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas became a reality. More than 1,000 indigenous people, armed with little more than machetes and rifles, declared war on the government and stormed into six towns, including this one. Their clashes with the army soldiers have caused at least 200 deaths.

Government officials, desperate to prove that indigenous people would not fight against them unless forced or deceived, initially pointed at Chiapan priests like Father Olvera. Members of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy also expressed concern that the priests, led by Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, might be involved.

Father Olvera, a bird-like man whose voice rarely rises above a whisper during private chats, says that he would never put a gun in the hand of an angry "campesino," as peasants here are called.

He and other priests in this area condemn violence in the same way that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, asked black Americans to use nonviolent means to protest racist governmental policies in the 1960s. But the priests do not deny giving campesinos something they say is even more dangerous: knowledge.

"The theology of this parish is to end the slavery of the indigenous people," he says, using language similar to that used in the charges of the rebels who declared war against the government.

"It is not a theology of alienation. We believe God wants liberty for all men.

"This is a parish that makes people aware of the conditions of their lives and shows them that they have the right to live better."

He adds: "We do not advocate violence, but we do not judge those who use it because they are desperate to escape misery."

Last week the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari began to back away from its accusations against church leaders as it became clear that the cooperation of priests would be crucial to a peaceful settlement of the crisis. The president ordered soldiers to cease fire and sent an emissary to Chiapas to negotiate an agreement with the rebels who call themselves the Zapatistas.

That emissary -- Manuel Camacho Solis -- made his first stop at the cathedral of San Cristobal de las Casas to speak with Bishop Ruiz, who had, like Father Olvera, faced the prospect of being expelled from this diocese in recent months.

The bishop's superiors in Rome had launched an inquiry into his activities. One of the Vatican's concerns was that he may have been inciting violence. It appears that inquiry has been ended.

"The church must be a part of the solution to this crisis," says Mr. Camacho. In a communique listing the conditions under which they would consider talks with the government, the rebels had said they would accept Bishop Ruiz as a mediator.

The bishop is a controversial leader who has struggled for years against the brutal and unjust treatment of Chiapas' Indians by wealthy landowners and government officials. He and the other priests of his parish are widely recognized as "liberation theologians," advocates of a leftist religious philosophy frowned upon by most of the Catholic hierarchy. Teachings tell followers that they should protest suffering caused by tyrants rather than turn the other cheek.

In Chiapas, 31 percent of the 3.2 million residents are illiterate, 20 percent of the children do not attend school and one out of every four people is a non-Spanish speaking Indian.

Priests accused

Many mayors of small villages throughout Chiapas, almost all members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, speak unkindly about Bishop Ruiz and his priests. They say the priests stir indigenous people to hostility and hatred.

They accuse the priests of using their influence to change the peasants' political views more than to teach brotherly love. And they say that the hostility fomented by priests nurtured the New Year's rebellion by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation. The rebels have taken heir name from the Mexican revolutionary hero, Emiliano Zapata.

"We used to live in peace," says Julio Cesar Gonzalez Hernandez, called the "presidente municipal," or mayor, of El Bosque. "Many people in town think the priest is inciting this movement. He is creating divisions among the people."

Two weeks ago, a mob of townspeople arrested four close assistants of the town's priest, the Rev. Herve Camier, accusing them of conspiring with the Zapatistas. At the same time, another mob went to the cathedral and stole Father Camier's radio and antenna, saying he used it to communicate with the rebels.

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