SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- Protestants
held an open prayer service in the Chiapas township of San Juan Chamula
for the first time since nominal Catholic villagers began violent persecutions
of them 25 years ago.
About 600 Tzotzil Indians singing hymns -- and accompanied by state
government officials to ensure against attack by other villagers --
held the service Friday at a half-built Protestant church in the Chamula
hamlet of "Arbenza I."
"We didn't come here to provoke our Catholic brothers, we came to invite
the mayor ... and Catholic residents to unite with us in a search for
peace," said Abdias Tovilla, the legal adviser for thousands of Chamula
residents expelled from the township in recent decades.
The church building -- the first non-Catholic temple ever built in
San Juan Chamula -- is still a shell of gray concrete block, and still
without a roof. But it already has a name: "The Prince of Peace."
"We just can't keep fighting between brothers of the same race because
the freedom to worship isn't respected," Tovilla said. The few Protestants
who managed to continue in Chamula over the last two decades had worshipped
in their homes.
Protestants estimate that since 1974, dozens of evangelical church
members have been killed and 25,000 have been driven out of Chamula
by neighbors who feel they threaten local cultural, religious, economic
and political traditions.
Local Catholics, most of them Tzotzil Indians, practice pre-Hispanic
Mayan Indian beliefs mixed with Roman Catholic liturgy. Village leaders
place strict limits on visiting Catholic priests.
The hybrid tradition includes such practices as the sipping of a potent
alcohol called posh during prayers in the township's only permitted
Many Protestants and some Catholics object to local mandatory taxes
and duties to support religious festivals involving mass drunkenness.
Critics also complain that town leaders' insistence on unity extends
to demands that all support the governing Institutional Revolutionary
In Arbenza I, 11 miles up a winding mountain road from the city of
San Cristobal, many Protestants hope they have found an island of peace
to worship -- if not live -- in Chamula.
Most still can't return to their villages, and live in improvised shacks
ringing San Cristobal. In August, government officials escorted 70 recently
expelled villagers back to their homes in the Chamula township.