The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
We spoke with Protestant Christians who had had their electricity and water cut off, who had been removed from the local population registers, whose children had been prevented from attending school.
Last month I went to Mexico with staff from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation which advocates for Freedom of Religion and Belief.
When I told my friends and family where I was going, their response was generally, “Wow! You’ll have a great holiday there.” When I told them, “No, it’s not a holiday. We are going to help Christians who are being persecuted,” most of them were incredulous: “But Mexico was a Christian country. How come Christians are being persecuted there?”
Therein lies the enigma of Mexico: the country with the second largest population of Roman Catholics in the world (after Brazil); 85-90% of the population say they are Catholics; but both Catholic and Protestant Christians are suffering for their faith!
Yes, even Catholics are suffering: we learnt that in the past decade over 50 Catholic priests and members of religious orders have been murdered, generally by drug trafficking gangs, because they have spoken out against violence, or refused to pay protection money, or simply to create a climate of fear in their communities. Mexico is the Number 1 country in the world for murder of Catholic priests. That issue is being actively addressed by the Catholic Church in Mexico. What we were focused on was the persecution of Protestant Christians, who have no powerful church organisation to help them.
The persecution of Protestants in Mexico occurs almost entirely among indigenous groups – these are the descendants of the original tribes who were in that area before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century – and there are dozens of such groups in Mexico.
Mexico has a federal system, with considerable autonomy given to the 32 constituent states. Persecution is concentrated in three of those states which have a high proportion of indigenous populations: Chiapas and Oaxaca in the south-east of the country, and Hidalgo, just to the north of Mexico City. We visited all three states and spoke to Christian leaders, persecuted Christians and local officials.
The indigenous groups tend to live in very tight-knit communities, where they do everything communally. For example, whereas in the West we householders pay our gas, electricity and water bills individually, in the indigenous communities they would generally pay as a group. And they conduct their social and religious activities as a group: we all go to the Catholic church for the big festivals, we all give our labour to prepare for them, we all contribute towards their costs, we all worship the local saints and madonnas, and we all get drunk afterwards.
So you can see that when a member of these indigenous groups hears about Jesus Christ and decides to follow him and join an evangelical or pentecostal church, there is a problem. He or she has shaken off the norms of the community; they are no longer doing what everybody else is doing; they have broken the cohesiveness of the community. The response to this from the community ranges from amused tolerance to outright hostility and persecution. Exact figures are hard to come by, but it is reliably estimated that there are 150 cases where the response is persecution, each one affecting between 1 and 100 people.
We spoke with Protestant Christians who had had their electricity and water cut off, who had been removed from the local population registers, whose children had been prevented from attending school – or the parents had been forced to pay for the privilege – who had been fined large sums of money, put in prison repeatedly, had had their land in the community confiscated, and in the last resort had been expelled from the community.
How can this be happening today, when the Mexican constitution guarantees Freedom of Religion and Belief?
Firstly, there is widespread ignorance of the constitution among the indigenous authorities. They know that the constitution allows them to follow their traditional usos y costumbres (uses and customs), but they are unaware that the practice of these is subject to the other provisions of the constitution.
Secondly, remoteness: much of this persecution happens in locations which are many hours’ journey from the state capital and which are rarely, if ever, visited by state officials. For example, in Oaxaca state there are over 500 municipalities, many of which cannot even be reached by telephone. So, news of persecution can take some time to filter out, and officials in the capital are not so bothered by what is happening in remote, inaccessible parts of their state.
Thirdly, there is the reluctance of local state officials to admit that there is a problem of religious persecution and to act on it; this is tied in to much wider issues in Mexican society. We were repeatedly told that Mexico is the Number 2 country in the world for impunity: for 95% of the crimes committed in the country, nobody is ever brought to justice or punished. So the default position of state and local administrations is to do nothing – which allows the persecution to continue.
So why do we Europeans bother involving ourselves in such an apparently intractable situation? Are we banging our heads against a brick wall? Well, first of all, we believe that our God is a God of justice; and when we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we have an obligation to act on that basis and to seek to promote justice, which is the foundation of that kingdom, irrespective of whether or not we are successful in our efforts.
All is not doom and gloom, though; there are, however, a number of hopeful signs. Mexico is deeply concerned about its image in the world. It is a member of the OECD and wishes to project itself as a civilised, developed country, tolerant of all religions and none, in order to attract external investment and maintain and enhance its thriving tourist industry. If ever the Trump wall is built, this will become even more important. We observed that local officials sat up and paid attention to the fact that Europeans had taken the trouble to come to their state. After all, they would not wish to see (what they perceive as) negative publicity for their state in the international media.
Also, at Federal Government level in Mexico City, we found a much greater acknowledgment of the existence of religious intolerance and a willingness to work with us in addressing the issues and resolving the problems. This is something to build on in the future. On the downside in Mexico City, we found that although Western embassies are very active on Human Rights issues such as torture, extra-judicial executions and murder of journalists, the only one which ever raises Freedom of Religion and Belief issues is the United States embassy.
So here are some things that you could do to help your indigenous brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution in Mexico.
Firstly, you can pray – an activity never to be under-estimated!
Secondly, you can inform yourself – the website csw.org.uk has some very useful an accurate information on the situation in Mexico – and many other countries too.
Thirdly, you can lobby your government. If you are American, you can congratulate the State Department on the efforts which they are making and encourage them to go still further. If you are from another country, you can encourage your embassy in Mexico City to get involved in this important issue. Every single contribution will help to secure justice for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Mexico.