The struggle for peace in Chiapas has taken some ugly twists in the past two years. Paramilitary groups backed by the Mexican army and the Chiapas state security police are attacking civilians they perceive to be supporters of a four-year-old guerrilla movement, the Zapatista Army for National Liberation. Among the most recent victims were two lay catechists wounded last November while traveling with Catholic Bishops Samuel Ruiz and Raul Vera.
The Zapatista uprising began in eastern Chiapas on New Years Day in 1994. Initially, it led to negotiations with the federal government, but also to increased militarization in the largely indigenous states of southern Mexico. Events in Chiapas attracted global attention, as indigenous people in Mexicos poorest state took up arms on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Their spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, eloquently expressed the Zapatista call for health care, housing, education, land, and respect for human rights. But negotiations ended in mid-1996 because the government refused to implement agreements on indigenous rights reached earlier that year.
North of the original conflict zone, related strife threatens the lives of thousands of indigenous farmers. This conflict polarizes communities along both political and religious lines. According to the International Service for Peace (SIPAZ), more than 4,000 people have been displaced from their homes and 300 killed in the past two years. In this new example of low-intensity warfare, the government and its armed forces create paramilitary groups (armed civilians) to provoke conflict, and then use the conflict to justify repression of groups that press for social reforms. In northern Chiapas, the major paramilitary group is called "Paz y Justicia" (Peace and Justice).
Last fall, Catholics and members of at least six Protestant churches tried to remove religious differences from issues involved in the conflict. Seventy people gathered for three days in San Cristóbal de Las Casas to pray, sing, talk, and work together, and they ended with a strong commitment to continue and expand the dialogue.
Those attending represented four of the states linguistic groups (Chol, Tsotsil, Tseltal, and Spanish) and included people from the Baptist, Catholic, Church of God, Full Gospel, Presbyterian, and Seventh Day Adventist traditions. Some of those present had been in direct conflict with each other. As stories unfolded of forced expulsions, murders, and thefts, it became clear that many Catholics in the Chol areas perceive their Presbyterian neighbors as supporters of paramilitary groups and of Mexicos long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The Presbyterians tended to perceive Catholics as supporters of the social democratic oppositionthe Party of the Democratic Revolutionor even of the Zapatista army.
RUIZ, THE CATHOLIC BISHOP of San Cristóbal, was one of the key players in the encounter. For nearly four decades he has accompanied the poor and indigenous people of his diocese through a long process of biblical reflection and recuperation of indigenous traditions. The result is a large number of highly articulate people who know how to defend their rights.
For example, a woman from a rural part of Sabanilla told the gathering, "We as Catholics have been struggling for the good of our brothers and sisters as indigenous people. We talk about peace, but many people do not have food or clothing or land, and this is not living in peace."
Some participants, however, criticized Christian involvement in politics, saying they preferred to work with authorities, not against them. "We are builders of healthy, biblical cultures," said a Presbyterian from Salto de Agua. "Christ taught us to respect the laws of our country." Another Presbyterian from Ocosingo said, "We pray for our authorities, whom God has placed there and with whom we have to work."
Bishop Ruiz defended his pastoral approach to social problems, comparing the Word of God to a light shone on social reality. "The light does not tell me what to do," Ruiz said, "but it shows me what is there so that I can decide what to do."
Nataniel Navarro of the Council of Indigenous Campesino Evangelical Churches, a national association of 40 Protestant and pentecostal congregations, said Baptists in the conflict zones have fared better than other Protestants because they do not do door-to-door proselytizing. "Thats in the past," he insisted. "We share the gospel in other ways, by creating credit unions and developing health projects, for example."
Participants agreed that religious divisions in Chiapas have been manipulated by the government and that the roots of the violence are in social injustice. "We commit ourselves to make efforts together, without hatred or violence, to collaborate in the eradication of such causes," their closing statement said.
The encounter signified a new phase in the process of building peace with justice in Chiapas. It was hard to demonize the "other" while washing dishes together after a meal of tortillas and beans. Ecumenism got a boost in a country where interchurch cooperation has been weak. Good will was shown on all sides, but events since the meetingthe spread of paramilitary violence to more areas and especially recent attacks on Catholic church leaderspoint out the need for more local mediation work by and among religious leaders.
JIM HODGSON is a Canadian journalist based in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and former communications secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches.