But â€˜traditionalist Catholicsâ€™ may not to sign it; evangelicals vow they wonâ€™t be expelled.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (Compass Direct News) -- On Monday (April 23), small town political bosses near this city in Chiapas state are set to meet with representatives of 65 Christians they have threatened to expel in a showdown that could influence religious rights throughout the region.
The town rulers decided to drive 13 Christian families from their homes last December for refusing to help pay for â€œtraditionalist Catholicâ€ festivals in Los Pozos, 29 kilometers (18 miles) from San Cristobal. State and federal officials intervened, and on February 28 the town bosses verbally agreed to a pact pledging they wouldnâ€™t expel the evangelicals, whose water lines and electricity they have cut since January.
But Christian leaders told Compass the rulers have signaled that either they will not sign the accord, or will exact fines before signing, or will sign it with plans to renege on it.
Leaders of both the evangelicals and the traditionalist Catholics, who practice a blend of Roman Catholicism and Tzotzil Maya customs, view the showdown as their Waterloo. For evangelicals, the outcome of the political maneuvering is expected to influence whether other Protestants in the region continue to be bullied into paying for alcohol-drenched Catholic festivals or gain a toe-hold on religious rights.
â€œThis will be an historic precedent, because in all the communities this news is going to run that the local officials signed the accord,â€ said Esdras Alonso Gutierrez, an attorney representing the 65 evangelicals that make up almost the entire Alas de Aguila (Eagleâ€™s Wings) church in Los Pozos. â€œOther caciques [local autocratic rulers] in other communities are saying, â€˜If we lose this one in Los Pozos, weâ€™re not going to be able to impose on them in other communities.â€™â€
Alas de Aguila Pastor Reynaldo Gomez Ton told Compass that the caciques originally threatened the church members with expulsion at a town council meeting last December 23. The town bosses gave the evangelicals two weeks to pay their share of the costs for the December 12 Virgin of Guadalupe festival or face expulsion, he said.
The evangelicals vow not to budge from their homes. They hope, Alonso told Compass, that the state and federal government intervention that led to the verbal agreement between the caciques and the Christians in February will carry over to government action regardless of whether the Los Pozos officials sign the accord: protection of the evangelicals if the political bosses fail to sign, enforcement of the accord if they do.
â€œIf on the 23rd they donâ€™t sign the accord, or if they condition it by making the evangelicals pay a fine, weâ€™re simply not going to accept it, and weâ€™re going to demand that the government do its job of protecting them and their rights,â€ Alonso said. â€œIf something happens on the 23rd, itâ€™s the responsibility of the government â€“ the brothers are not going to leave, and whatever aggression the caciques mete out, the government is responsible.â€
The agreement calls for local authorities to restore the evangelicalsâ€™ water lines, electrical service and firewood rights and resume distributing federal food aid and fertilizers they have diverted from the Christians. The Tzotzil Christians told Compass they have been walking more than a kilometer to wash clothes in muddy well water or puddles since the caciques cut their services on January 30.
The church members are skeptical of the caciquesâ€™ decision to wait two months to sign an agreement reached verbally on February 28. At that time, the Los Pozos officials told them that they could only draw up the documents for signing at their next regular meeting on April 23.
â€œUp till now, because theyâ€™ve cut this childrenâ€™s food aid program from us, weâ€™ve been suffering trying to buy food as at times the money comes up short,â€ said Carmela Santis Lopez, 38, who has four children ages 18 months, 4, 6 and 8. â€œWhen we went to get the food assistance from the authorities, they threatened us saying, â€˜Your children are not at fault, you are at fault for accepting Christ and not wanting to contribute to the Catholic festivals, so youâ€™re not going to get your grocery food anymore.â€™â€
As local officials prohibit outsiders from visiting evangelicals in the hamlet â€“ caciques surround arriving pastors and threaten them with jail time and fines â€“ several church families walked more than two kilometers (1.2 miles) out of Los Pozos to talk with Compass in a pine tree-strewn ravine.
â€œWe are asking the authorities that they reconnect the water, because the children are suffering,â€ the Tzotzil-speaking Santis said through an interpreter. â€œTheyâ€™ve gotten sick from lack of bathing because thereâ€™s not much water, and theyâ€™ve also gotten sick because the waterâ€™s dirty â€“ when you drop the bucket down, it stirs up the mud and dirties the water.â€
Santis said she was raped by two traditionalist Catholics â€“ Aldelfino Ton Peche and Alejandro Morales Mendez â€“ on May 3, 2005 because she was a Christian. While her husband was out working, she said, they entered her home when she opened the door thinking winds were striking it.
â€œI was alone and began screaming, but nobody heard me or defended me, and these two men raped me on the floor of my house,â€ she said. â€œWhen this was over, I went to talk to the rural security agent here in the community to ask for help, but I didnâ€™t find him because he was drunk.â€
The local security agentâ€™s wife told her to return in two days, Santis said. â€œSo day after tomorrow came, and he didnâ€™t pay me any attention, because he was â€“ how shall I say, in agreement with the rapists. Because I am an evangelical, he defended the rapists.â€
She filed a complaint with the state attorney generalâ€™s office, where it has sat unattended in an archive for nearly two years, she said.
Maria Elena Gomez Ton, a 27-year-old mother of four also allegedly raped by traditionalist Catholics, told Compass she walks a kilometer and a half three times a day for water.
â€œTo wash my clothes I have to go far to bring water from an arroyo, or if thereâ€™s puddles of water I go there to wash our clothes,â€ she said.
Evangelical leaders said Los Pozos rulers are diverting federal food aid of a program called SEDESOL from 21 children (up from 16 previously reported), including Gomez Tonâ€™s four little ones ages 10 months, 4, 6 and 8.
â€œThe authoritiesâ€™ wives say we didnâ€™t show up to collect the food assistance, but this is a lie,â€ Gomez Ton said. â€œWhen we went to pick it up, when the Los Pozos authorities were distributing this food, they told us that they didnâ€™t want to give it to us, and that if we returned we would again not be given our turn. We went home with our children.â€
Los Pozos belongs to the municipality of Huistan, which has its own set of caciques who traditionally have supported the local town bosses. Compass did not question Los Pozos authorities given the jail terms and/or fines they slap on visiting Christians, but Huistan Municipal President Manuel Alvarez Martinez did permit a brief interview.
Alvarez Martinez declined to explain to Compass why the pact to restore water and other services couldnâ€™t be signed soon after the February 28 verbal agreement. Oddly, he said that â€œat no timeâ€ did any authorities threaten the evangelicals with expulsion, even as he noted that this issue was at the heart of the agreement.
â€œWe had a talk with the state government at city hall, with the authorities of Los Pozos and the evangelicals, in which we arrived at an agreement that, for starters, there would be no expulsion,â€ Alvarez Martinez said. â€œThe only thing lacking is the document. Both parties have to sign, and we the authorities will be present to witness this matter.â€
Alvarez Martinezâ€™s assistant, Alejandro Bautista Jimenez, at first declined to grant Compass an audience with the Huistan municipal president, claiming that the matter of the threatened expulsion of the Los Pozos evangelicals â€œwas already resolved.â€
â€œIt was in all the newspapers and on the radio,â€ Bautista Jimenez said, and indeed the Chiapas press â€“ which evangelical leaders believe is more than 90 percent controlled by pay-outs from the governor elected last year, Juan Sabines â€“ has widely promoted the impression that the state government has already obtained a solution, Christian leaders said.
Alonso, a pastor who earned a criminal law degree in the course of defending indigenous religious rights for nearly two decades, said wearily that he has seen it all before: State and federal government officials announce they have brokered an accord, the press hails the achievement, and just before the agreement is signed, an unforeseen event arises to stall it indefinitely. The matter fades from public memory.
â€œJust as weâ€™re about to definitively seal an agreement, something happens,â€ Alonso told Compass. â€œThey kill someone or create some kind of problem, because there are people who donâ€™t want the problem to be resolved.â€
Until state authorities threatened to withdraw resources from Huistan, Alonso said, Huistan authorities supported the Los Pozos bossesâ€™ intentions to ignore the February 28 agreement and expel the evangelicals. Now Huistan authorities like Alvarez Martinez support the agreement, but Alonso said the Los Pozos caciquesâ€™ stance remains to be seen.
â€œWe have information that there have been private meetings of the caciques, that they want to make the evangelicals pay 20,000 pesos [US$1,818] in fines to get their services restored,â€ Alonso said. â€œBut if they canâ€™t even pay the 100 pesos [US$8] per family for each Catholic festival, how are they going to pay that fine?â€
Gov. Sabines, a deeply committed Roman Catholic, has insisted that he will guarantee religious freedom and not allow the Catholic/evangelical conflicts of the past four decades to continue to besmirch Chiapasâ€™ image. Evangelicals supported his election, Alonso said, adding that the Los Pozos case will be the first indicator of the new governorâ€™s commitment to protect evangelicals and their constitutional right to religious freedom.
The Los Pozos caciques tore down the Alas de Aguila church building in 2003 and jailed 19 of their members for 24 hours to keep them from reporting the incident.
The pastor of the church, Gomez Ton, told Compass that the evangelicals plan to continue bearing up under the traditionalist Catholicsâ€™ abuses even if they fail to sign the agreement.
â€œThe Lord says, â€˜Vengeance is mine,â€™ so we donâ€™t respond by paying back their abuses,â€ Gomez Ton said. â€œRather, we respond with patience, faith and love â€“ because we hope that some day theyâ€™ll change their ideas about us. They act against us out of ignorance, and if Jesus Christ had not entered into us, we would be doing the same things. Our only weapon is prayer.â€
If the caciques attempt to expel them by force, however, Gomez Ton hinted that the Christians would defend themselves.
â€œWeâ€™re not leaving,â€ he said. â€œAnd there arrives a point where one is forced to defend oneself. If thatâ€™s the case, the Old Testament examples of Davidâ€™s victories in battle inspire us.â€
Miguel Ton Cruz, a 63-year-old resident of Los Pozos with six of his eight adult children living at home, said the evangelicals will not allow the caciques to intimidate them.
â€œHow is it that weâ€™re going to let them drive us out?â€ he told Compass. â€œIf theyâ€™re going to drive us out, weâ€™re going to defend ourselves and our rights, because thereâ€™s nowhere else to go. Weâ€™re organizing ourselves to defend our rights.â€
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