Mexico: New Believer Jailed for Receiving Christ

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Village officials in Chiapas punish convert for leaving ‘traditionalist Catholic’ religion.

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico, April 16 (Compass Direct News) -- Juan Mendez Mendez became a Christian in a village outside of this city in Chiapas state on April 7, and two days later local authorities put him in jail – for leaving their religious blend of Roman Catholicism and native custom.

A catechist or doctrinal instructor in the “traditionalist Catholic” church in the village of Pasté (pahs-TEH), the 25-year-old Mendez was released on Tuesday (April 10) after spending the night in jail. The previous Easter Sunday, political bosses in the Tzotzil Maya village noticed him missing from a church festival involving what Mendez considered to be idolatrous rites; they summoned him that evening.

“They said, ‘What do you mean that you’ve accepted Christ – you mean you don’t believe in our gods [Catholic saints]?’” Mendez told Compass. “And I said, ‘Well, those were just apostles, and now I belong to Christ.’”

The town leaders threatened to jail Mendez, and the following day they summoned him again after consulting with villagers, including other catechists. Mendez verified to them that he had heard the gospel in another community and now wanted to become part of an Alas de Aguila (Eagle’s Wings) church in Pasté, he said.

The officials threatened to strip him and throw cold water on him in jail, Mendez said. “You know what else we’re going to do?” one of them told the father of three pre-school children. “We’re going to beat you. We’re going to hit you.”

Mendez said he replied, “‘You know, if you’re going to beat me, then here I am. Here I am, if you’re going to beat me.’ But another said, ‘No, we’re not going to beat him.’”

After questioning Pasté Alas de Aguila pastor Jose Gomez Hernandez – confirming that Mendez planned to attend his church, though he had not yet had the opportunity to do so – village officials decided to jail the new Christian last Monday night (April 9).

Members of the Alas de Aguila church were allowed to visit him. He said he told one of them, “If I have to be a prisoner, I have no other alternative but to continue pressing forward.” He added that his wife, who put her trust in Christ along with Mendez, “despite this situation has been very happy, and in her faith she wants to press forward also.”

Mendez was not hurt while in jail from 5 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and was released without further threats, he said, though another Alas de Aguila pastor, Antonio Vasquez, said “there is certainly a threat.”

“What is further painful to me,” Pastor Vasquez told Compass, “is that the brethren in our church continue to contribute to and participate in the pagan festivals, because if they don’t the local authorities will take all these people to jail.”

Compass declined to contact Pasté village head Mariano Lopez Gomez, as an international news agency questioning him or other village officials about the jailing of Mendez could result in further abuse of the fledgling Christian. Pastor Vasquez said that in the municipality of Zinacatan, to which Pasté belongs, local traditionalist Catholic officials in some of the area’s 46 communities prohibit any form of evangelization.

“There are still areas where they do not permit the gospel,” he said. “They don’t want it, and they reject it to the point that there are some brothers who have been prisoners in other communities.”

Home Burned, Family Tortured

Vasquez, whose church has grown to 60 to 80 mainly Tzotzil- or Tzeltal-speaking people since he began it in 1996, is no stranger to area persecution from traditionalist Catholics.

In 1998, local political bosses (caciques) put him in jail for 24 hours without food. In 2000, he was released from jail only after the intervention of Chiapas Religious Affairs officials – who promptly demanded that he contribute to and participate in the traditionalist Catholic religious festivals, which the pastor said amounted to a denial of his faith.

“An attorney from the government told me, ‘You know what? I’m a Christian, but you have to do what we say,’” Pastor Vasquez recalled. “And I told her, ‘As an authority you cannot obligate me to deny my faith, because, as you know very well, that goes against the constitution. Secondly, as a Christian, you cannot obligate me to deny my faith and all the things that my faith requires.’ So she was left something ashamed.”

The state religious affairs ministry had more success forcing his congregation to commit to participating in the traditionalist Catholic rites, which bring caciques not only festival fees but alcohol sales income. The congregation subsequently abandoned him, Pastor Vasquez said.

“They said to me, ‘You like to get into trouble, and we don’t want trouble, so we’ve signed the agreement with the government,’” Pastor Vasquez said. He was going to leave the area, but he said God told him two things: “Cowards flee,” and “Cowards have no part in me.”

Hence he signed the government agreement, which allowed him to continue preaching as long as he contributed to and participated in the traditionalist Catholic festivals – something “very painful,” he said. The church grew so much, however, that by August 20, 2000, the caciques again jailed him, his father and his two brothers – and burned down his house.

“The next day, when they took me out of jail and to the municipal manager, he told me, ‘Hey, Antonio, how was it that you came to burn down your house?’” Pastor Vasquez said. “I said, ‘How am I, a prisoner, going to burn down my house?’ He said, ‘Go see your mother,’ because my mother and my two younger sisters had remained at home.”

Pastor Vasquez found that his family members were able to flee the house, which was reduced to ashes.

He managed to build a house from donated wood and sheets of laminate for a roof, but local authorities cut his water line and electricity. He has lived by candle light, cistern capture and water sold from vendors for the past six years.

Chiapas state officials had secured an agreement from local chieftains to restore the pastor’s water and electricity, but secretly they conspired to let leave him without the services, he said. The last statement on the matter that Pastor Vasquez heard from a state official was, “Forget about it – nothing can be done.”

No longer contributing funds or participating in the alcohol-drenched festivals that pay homage to Catholic saints, in 2004 Pastor Vasquez found his father and brothers jailed while he was preaching in another city. The caciques stripped them and threw cold water on them, he said, as well as stung them with chile juices and a sprayed chemical compound that burns the skin.

They were freed only after intervention from state officials.

Because of the complicity of government agencies, “It’s easy for these kinds of abuses to be carried out with impunity,” said Esdras Alonso Gutierrez, head of San Cristobal’s ministry of religious affairs and founder of the Alas de Aguila movement.

“The situation in the areas around San Cristobal has calmed in San Juan Chamula, but beginning in 1998-2000, violence in the region outside of San Juan Chamula has been increasing,” Alonso told Compass. “In the last Chiapas administration under Gov. Pablo Salazar, there were no murders in San Juan Chamula, but there has been persecution in other areas: Huistan, Zinacatan, Las Margaritas, San Cristobal de las Casas, Ocosingo and La Trinitaria, among others.”

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