For Want of Fertile Land | Sojourners

For Want of Fertile Land

Sunday once marked a sleepy end of the week in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a historic town situated high in the mountains of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. It was God's day, the day of rest.

Not any more. Everyone is in "unrest" in Chiapas at present, seven days a week. Even God is said to be on the move.

On Sunday, February 19, 1995, more than 500 ranchers and business leaders marched on the cathedral of San Cristóbal and attacked a sizable crowd of churchgoers, mostly of Maya descent. The angry demonstrators pelted them with rocks and eggs. According to eye witnesses, six elderly indigenous women saying rosary in front of the church door were among the first hit. Blood ran down the back of 90-year-old Joaquina Pineda, struck in the back of the head by a hurling object.

Most of the indigenous were there to protect their bishop. Word had spread during the morning Mass that Chiapas' powerful landowners were planning a march on the cathedral to pressure (or capture, some say) Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who resides and works on the site. So when demonstrators arrived carrying banners demanding Ruiz's resignation, they met the bishop's supporters, standing silently, preventing them from entering the cathedral.

The Catholic Church and Bishop Samuel Ruiz have been a lightning rod of controversy ever since rebels took over four towns in Chiapas on New Year's Day 1994, the beginning of Mexico's first armed insurgency in nearly two decades.

Local ranchers commonly refer to Ruiz as "el obispo rojo" ("the red bishop"), charging that he has fanned the flames of discontentment among poor peasants by preaching class struggle. The Mexican government, too, while agreeing to allow him to serve as chief mediator in its conflict with the Zapatistas, implicate him in being a primary force behind the rebellion.

Bishop Ruiz, long used to being underestimated by Mexico's power brokers, ironically is now a victim of their exaggeration. He

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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