by Mariusa Reyes - 3rd December 2014
FIDEL López Hernández is one of many evangelical Christians persecuted in Mexico for daring to practice Christianity in a way that differs from Catholicism, the country’s main religion.
‘Where I live, in Chiapas, when the local community leaders heard that a group of families had converted to the Pentecostal church, they told them that if they wanted to have a religious service it would have to be in their own homes, and only after paying a fine of 25,000 Mexican pesos (the equivalent of £1,000), which is illegal’, Hernández, a converted evangelical Christian told Lapido Media.
‘They not only expelled us from our homes, they also took our plots of land and all our possessions. We had to leave with nothing’, Hernández said.
In this particular incident all the Protestant men and boys were arbitrarily imprisoned and forced to renounce their faith. The group included women, children and the elderly. Since then they have been living in an overcrowded former homeless shelter in another municipality.
Religious intolerance is most prevalent in the southwest of Mexico, particularly in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, but also in some central states such as Michoacán, Hidalgo, Puebla and Guerrero. These are states with a high percentage of indigenous population.
‘Christians in these regions are threatened and persecuted by those who disagree with their choice to change their religion and beliefs,’ Dr Jorge Lee Gallardo, a specialist lawyer who has provided legal assistance to evangelical churches for over 20 years, told Lapido Media.
‘These authorities believe that their culture is being damaged and they do not accept that the freedom of the individual can take precedence over their cultural traditions.’
Gallardo leads Impulso 18, which heard first-hand accounts of violations of religious freedom at a recent conference in Mexico City hosted jointly with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
‘The central conflict often arises around the financial contribution requested by local authorities and traditional religious leaders to be used for the ‘patron saint’ religious festivals. Protestant Christians refuse to pay these fees,' he said.
Members of minority Christian groups are being forced to leave their faith, their children are banned from state-run schools, they are barred from access to electricity, water and farmland, and their modest religious buildings are destroyed.
The Mexican constitution in its article 24 guarantees religious freedom for all. However, the law is ignored by those who consider Catholicism to be the official religion in the country.
‘Our constitution does not talk of one church but of many churches. I don’t think the Catholic Church as an institution perpetrates these abuses against other churches. What happens, I believe, is that the Catholic leadership in our country does not have the control over the more traditional or conservative of their believers to persuade them to respect other churches,' Gallardo said.
A further growing threat to religious freedom in Mexico comes from the drug trafficking criminal networks operating in the country.
In a written statement to the US House of Representatives´ Foreign Affairs Committee, during a hearing on the Worldwide Persecution of Christians earlier this year, Galindo reported that ‘extortion aimed at houses of worship has become normal in the north of Mexico’.
According to his statement, pastors, priests and parishioners - Christians and Catholics alike - who refuse to cooperate with criminal activities, are threatened and kidnapped - in some cases in the middle of religious services.
Juan Sapien Sandoval has been an evangelical Christian for 15 years. He knows only too well what it means to be a Christian in his home town, ridden by crime and violence.
‘In Michoacán, where I live, we see these groups of armed men, most of whom were drug dealers before, now fighting the narco cartels’, he told Lapido Media.
‘They recruit children and teenagers for their cause. On one occasion, they threw us out of our community using sticks and machetes. They have threatened to kill me if I go back to my community’.
At all levels in society there seems to be a general acceptance that this problem of religious persecution exists but what is lacking is the political will to resolve it.
‘Government officials usually try to find excuses, putting the blame on the regional authorities. There is very little political will to address the issue in any meaningful way,' said CSW´s Anna Lee.
Despite their plight, non-Catholic churches in Mexico – Protestant, Pentecostal, Christian and evangelical – continue to grow. In the 2010 census out of a total population of 112 million inhabitants, eight million people said they belong to any of these denominations, as opposed to six and a half million people in 2000.
Lapido Media asked the Mexican Episcopal Conference, the leadership body of the Catholic church in Mexico, to comment on the treatment of minority Christians. Monsignor Leopoldo González González, Bishop of Tapachula (Chiapas) and President of the Episcopal Commission for the Interfaith Dialogue said the Catholic Church is tolerant of believers who convert to other denominations, but, for example in Chiapas 'evangelicals accuse and offend Catholics, calling them idolaters and drunks. These offences provoke a normal reaction of intolerance from our believers towards evangelicals'.
He added that indigenous people have a 'very high sense of community life' and when someone else doesn't respect their tradition and rules 'they expel them from their communities'.
Mariusa Reyes is a former BBC correspondent in Mexico and Central America.