Competing for Souls

Susana Hayward
Knight Ridder
The Mercury News
June 27, 2003

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Outside this city of colonial churches and cobblestone streets built by Maya and Spaniards, Juan Gomez finds shade from a blinding afternoon sun inside his small wooden hut.

A beatific smile radiates from the young Tzotzil Maya as he haltingly reads the Koran in Arabic.

Gomez, 26, a former Protestant who became a Muslim in 1996, is learning the language as a convert to Islam. He embodies a religious phenomenon in Chiapas, where one-quarter of the 3.9 million people are poor Maya peasants who practice myriad religions, often blending ancient rituals with Roman Catholicism.

The religious conquest of Chiapas persists five centuries after Spanish priests fought to convert the Maya, burning their books of complex hieroglyphics. Chiapas is unusual in mostly Catholic Mexico for its near-constant state of religious turmoil. Anthropologists say the historical lack of a centralized political or religious system — combined with a strong tradition of spirituality — have left the Maya people easily swayed by missionaries, who have descended repeatedly on Chiapas in search of converts.

Since the arrival of U.S.-based Protestant missionaries decades ago, this southernmost state bordering Guatemala has been wracked by violent clashes as faiths compete for souls.

Islam joined the religious skirmishes in 1995 with the arrival of Muslim missionaries from Spain. So far, they have converted about 300 Chiapas families. There are only a few thousand Muslims in Mexico.

“Islam is the path to the truth,” Gómez said as his 2-year-old son, Muhammad, giggled and his pregnant wife looked on.

For three generations, Gómez’s family has sought spiritual peace, first as Catholics, then as Protestants and now as Muslims. In the 1970s, Gómez’s father led one of the first Protestant families to be chased out of the nearby town of San Juan Chamula by Catholics armed with sticks, stones and machetes.

Here, the gamut of Protestant denominations, ranging from Presbyterians to Pentecostals to Seventh-Day Adventists, are known as “evangelicals.” Mormons are lumped into the same category.

The Islamic missionaries arrived from Granada, Spain, soon after armed Zapatista rebels took over several towns in an uprising to demand better living conditions for Maya peasants in 1994.

The Spaniards are members of Murabitun, a Muslim order active in England, Chechnya, South Africa, Germany and now Mexico. The Murabitun are converts to the mystical Sufi strain of Islam.

Their worldwide leader is Sheik Abdalqadir al-Murabit, formerly Ian Dallas of Britain, who professes a “communal,” anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic form of Islam. In Mexico, the Murabitun are led by Aureliano Pérez, who calls himself Emir Nafia and lives on the outskirts of San Cristóbal.

Pérez, who has received mostly bad press, is wary of the news media. He spoke briefly about his goals in Chiapas and denied ties to Al-Qaida.

Pérez said his funding came from Arab philanthropists and small businesses. The community runs an Islamic seminary and has built a mosque on the outskirts of San Cristóbal.

The other branch of Islam in Mexico is led by Imam Omar, otherwise known as Omar Weston, who came from England with his Christian family as a boy. He now lives in Morelos state, hundreds of miles from Chiapas.

The differences between the two Mexican versions of Islam are captured in the Gómez family. They have split from Pérez, continuing a family tradition of religious seeking. Two years ago, they became Sunni Muslims under Weston, saying the Murabitun do not adhere to the Koran and are “condescending” to the indigenous.

“They invent things. They sing and dance. They make things up that are not in the Koran,” Gómez said.

San Cristóbal Bishop Felipe Arizmendi said Chiapas had the greatest variety of religious practices of any Mexican state, with new groups appearing frequently and worshipers hopping back and forth among them. The Muslims, he said, are the latest and most exotic.

“The Maya switch as much from the Catholics as they do from evangelicals or traditional Protestants,” he said.

José María Morales, the director of religious affairs for the Interior Ministry of Chiapas, said, “It’s the first time that Spanish citizens have come here to try to convert, above all, the Tzotzil Maya, to Islam. It’s completely alien to Chiapas.”

“Because of the world situation, it has generated a climate of mistrust and curiosity,” he said, noting that the Muslim group has “conducted itself with propriety and absolute normalcy.”

Protestants missionaries, however, have had a much larger impact in Chiapas. Evangelicals have converted almost 40 percent of the population, almost entirely at the expense of Catholicism. Only 61 percent of Chiapas is Catholic, the lowest in Mexico.

Hatred and distrust abound between Protestants and so-called “traditional Catholics,” who are not Catholics at all in the usual sense. They practice a mixture of Maya and Roman Catholic ritual, reject the Bible and hire shamans to ward off evil spirits that cause illness or sin.

Nowhere is the mysterious meld of Maya-Christian credo more visible than in San Juan Chamula in the dreamlike interior of Church of St. John the Baptist, their patron saint.

Mounds of pine needles cover the floor. Chamulans kneel amid candles and incense that cast clouds of blinding smoke. The only sacrament received is baptism.

Meanwhile, evangelical Chamulans, living in shantytowns around San Cristóbal de las Casas, eschew alcohol, chant piercing gospel songs, dance to tambourines and clap thunderously in a trance-like state.

In the past four decades, some 30,000 Protestant converts have been violently expelled from Chamula alone. The forced expulsions continue, and about 170 evangelical children still are banned from public schools for fear of religious “contamination.”

When peace seems at hand, a spree of murders, lynchings and torchings of evangelical temples breaks out.

“This is a time bomb,” said Inocencio Rivero González, a police agent with the department of state investigations. Since January, when a violent religious clash left seven dead, Rivero and a dozen officers have patrolled the Chiapas town of Tres Cruces.

So far, despite the anxiety they inspire elsewhere in the world, the Muslims in Chiapas have not been targets of violence.

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