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Protestants Get First Church after 25-Year Religious Conflict

from the Associated Press -- 05-DEC-98
photo by Macduff Everton/Corbis

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.

Chamula Indians - photo by Jerry Lara

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 church.

Chamula indian man with posh

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 Party.

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.

Copyright 1998& The Associated Press
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