Chiapas: evangelicals exploit religious violence for propaganda against EZLN

The evangelical Journal Chretién features a commentary Feb. 12 on religious violence in Mexico’s conflicted southern state of Chiapas which is rife with dangerous distortions, and smacks of a propaganda job against the Zapatista rebels. Although writer Aloys Evina begins by boasting of his “many years as a reporter,” his garbled report reveals either deep ignorance or willful denial of the realities of Chiapas. The implausible account concerns a supposed Zapatista “lynch-mob” attack on a Maya evangelical preacher.

Evina writes: “The pastor, Manuel Arias, a Tzotzil Indian, had been arrested by a lynch mob of supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, known by the Spanish acronym EZLN, who at that time had been conducting a four year armed struggle against the Mexican government. His detention took place shortly after the massacre of 45 Indians on December 22, 1997, in the town of Acteal in the Chenalho area of Chiapas.”

For starters, the EZLN maintains rigorous discipline of all its members, and does not engage in lynchings. All human rights obervers agree on this—although slippery use of the words “supporters of” allows Evina a degree of wiggle room. Secondly, the EZLN’s “armed struggle” lasted only for the first 12 days of their uprising in January 1994. Since then, they have pursued a civil and negotiated solution to their demands. They have not surrendered their arms, but neither have they used them. Thirdly, the Acteal massacre was carried out against supporters of the Zapatistas. Uninitiated readers would have the vicitms and perpetrators reversed from Evina’s account. Finally, Evina fails to mention the rather salient fact that the perpetrators of the massacre were evangelical Presbyterian converts!

Evina quotes Arias (interjections in original):

“I was arrested because I was falsely accused of transporting weapons for the paramilitary groups who are opposing the Zapatistas. They had seen me helping the [Christian Indian] brothers and many times I had asked the president of the municipality to help me with transportation when I had food for the refugees.

“I think the real reason for my arrest was because they were angry with me as I had told my brethren not to get involved in any of the conflicts or fights because that’s not what the Bible says. But they said that I had been involved in the conflicts, but I have not. Perhaps I was a barrier for the Zapatistas [who wanted support from his congregation] and that is why they arrested me.”

Acccording to Evina’s account, Arias was saved by the timely intervention of Sen. Pablo Salazar, who is identified as “the first evangelical ever to be voted into the Mexican Congress”—and who was later elected governor of Chiapas. Evina quotes Salazar:

“I told the Zapatistas, ’Unless you liberate Manuel, I will denounce what is going on here in a national way through the media. I believe that it was not because I was a senator, that I should help him, but because I knew Manuel, and because I am a believer in Jesus Christ. Thank God, they did free him and he was not hung.”

Evina got these quotes several months after the fact at “a special ‘unity’ conference organized and held in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the southern Mexico state, by Latin American Indian Ministries of Orange, California which is run by Dr. Dale W. Kietzman.”

Compass Direct News, a website that monitors global persecution of Christians, runs a Feb. 12 update on Chiapas, which mercifully fails to mention the Zapatistas. It describes a pattern of perseuction of evangelicals at the hands of “traditional Catholics”:

Last January 31, three evangelicals from San Juan Chamula municipality were driving home from San Cristobal de las Casas when they were ambushed and shot at, requiring hospitalization. Authorities concluded that it was a case of religious persecution. Also on January 31, Reynaldo Gomez Ton, representative of the Alas de Aguila (Eagle Wings) church denomination, lamented that several evangelical families in Los Pozos, municipality of Huixtan, had not only had their water cut off but also lost the cash benefits of a government program to help small farmers called PROCAMPO merely for religious reasons. Local leaders took heavy tools to destroy their water pipes, disrupting the service of 40 evangelicals. Later, on January 21, authorities forbade them to chop wood.

It should be noted that the “traditional Catholic” village bosses (caciques) who persecute evangelical converts in Chiapas are also deadly enemies of the Zapatistas, who likewise oppose their rule (if for very different reasons). These village bosses are so reactionary that they have often even been at odds with the local Diocese of San Cristobal, which embraced Liberation Theology under the leadership of Bishop Samuel Ruiz (who brokered the first peace dialogue with the EZLN in 1994). They rule in connivance with the Institutional Revolutionary Party machine (which was finally ousted when Salazar was elected governor in 2000), and the army—which helped establish the anti-Zapatista paramilitary groups such as that which carried out the Acteal massacre, Red Mask. But the Acteal massacre was one instance of evangelicals and caciques making common cause against Zapatista supporters. The victims of the massacre were actually followers of a Tzotzil Catholic pacifist group, Las Abejas (The Bees), which sympathizes with the Zapatistas but refuses to bear arms.

The Zapatistas, for their own part, are avowedly secular. Both Catholics and evangelicals are permitted in the movement, and treated as equals. They have been implicated in no attacks on Protestant converts.

See our last posts on Mexico, Chiapas and the Zapatistas, and the Acteal massacre.