Rural Mexico a gut check for Catholic Church on religious freedom

Rural Mexico a gut check for Catholic Church on religious freedom

Rural Mexico a gut check for Catholic Church on religious freedom

A crucifix, recovered from a collapsed church, is held up by ropes inside an auditorium during a Mass, in Tepeojuma, Mexico, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko.)

For a Catholic witness on religious freedom to be effective, it must be consistent and apply across the board, lest it seem mere confessional self-interest.

News Analysis

ROME – Recently – and, many observers would say, belatedly – the Catholic Church has awoken to the reality of anti-Christian persecution around the world. The emblematic case is the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, where Catholic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need have meant the difference between life and death for a resilient Christian minority struggling to rebuild post-ISIS.

Pope Francis routinely talks about anti-Christian persecution as a fact of life in the early 21st century, invoking an “ecumenism of blood” to express the reality that oppressors don’t generally make distinctions among the types of Christianity practiced by their victims.

This activism is warranted by the threats faced by tens of millions of Christians around the world – to invoke the language of the Catholic Mass, it is “right and just.” For a Catholic witness to be effective, however, it must be consistent and apply across the board, lest it seem mere confessional self-interest.

And that, by a short route, brings us to the small town of Cuamontax Huazalingo, Mexico, population around 700 souls, located in Hidalgo State in the central part of the country just north of Mexico City.

Last Sunday, four Protestants were kicked out of town by village leaders in Cuamontax Huazalingo, apparently in retaliation for their refusal to sign an agreement barring Protestants from entering the community and also for a press conference held by their lawyer accusing the Mexican government of failing to defend religious freedom.

A home belonging to Gilberto Badillo, his adult son Uriel Badillo and their wives, all Missionary Baptists, was attacked on Sunday while they were away, with all their belongings carted off and the windows smashed in order to make the home uninhabitable. In consequence, the Badillos left town and sought refuge in a nearby city.

According to religious freedom watchdog groups, there was ample warning the family was in danger but local and regional government officials refused to intervene, instead giving interviews to media blaming the family for their refusal to participate in, and give financial support to, Catholic activities.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that beginning in 2018, community leaders cut the electricity, running water and sewage services to the handful of Protestant inhabitants, demanding that they sign an agreement to financially support all village activities, including Catholic festivals, and also pledging that no Protestant missionaries would enter.

“CSW is deeply troubled by yet another forced displacement in Hidalgo after the government has failed to take action to uphold freedom of religion or belief,” said the group’s Head of Advocacy, Anna-Lee Stangl.

“Once again, state officials neglected to take advantage of an abundance of opportunities over the past eight months to intervene and resolve the conflict in accordance with human rights protections under Mexican law,” she said. “We call on Hidalgo State Governor Omar Fayad Meneses to take immediate action to ensure that members of his administration are upholding the law, and that those who commit criminal acts associated with religious intolerance are held to account.”

It’s not, by the way, as if the situation in Cuamontax Huazalingo is anomalous.

Mexico is 81 percent Catholic, the highest percentage in Latin America, and has largely resisted the inroads made by Evangelical Christians in the rest of the region. However, 90 percent of Mexicans say they were born Catholic, and the country’s bishops have often expressed concerns about the proselytizing activities of non-Catholic denominations.

In September 2011, a group of about seventy Protestants in the village of San Rafael Tlanalpan in Puebla state were issued a terrifying ultimatum: Leave immediately or be “crucified” or “lynched.” Traditionalist Catholics in the village, located about sixty miles from Mexico City, threatened to burn down their homes and kill any Protestants who remained, styling them as a threat to the Catholic identity of the area. It was the culmination of a long-running effort to get rid of the Protestants, as their water supply had been cut off for the first time five years earlier.

In 2013, one Evangelical organization claimed that 50,000 Protestants had been displaced from their homes in Mexico over the previous thirty years, with hundreds injured in violent altercations and a handful of Protestants killed. One such victim was Lorenzo López, a 20-year-old Evangelical in the state of Chiapas, who was killed in 2007 when he entered the village of Jomalhó in order to repay relatives money he had borrowed for his wedding. Witnesses reported that roughly 30 traditionalist Catholics assaulted López, shouted Catholic slogans at him, dragged him into a hall for a “trial,” sentenced him to death and forced him to dig his own grave, then smashed his head with rocks.

Granted, such incidents are largely confined to rural Mexico and often tied up with issues of land use, indigenous rights, and a basic fear of outsiders, none of which are specifically “religious” factors. Nevertheless, this is a case in which Christians – generally Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants – are being persecuted, and not by a hostile regime or Muslim extremists but by oppressors acting in the name of the Catholic Church.

It’s understandable that religious freedom advocates appear to be focused mostly on cajoling the government to act, since police intervention in these cases is obviously required. Equally, however, it would seem reasonable to demand that the Catholic bishops of Mexico step in, beginning with publicly disowning these perpetrators, and from there perhaps devising a campaign to educate Mexico’s rural communities in the actual teaching of the Catholic Church on religious freedom.

Mexico is the second-largest Catholic country in the world after Brazil, and if the Church can’t insist on respect for religious freedom from its own members there, it’s hard to imagine what success it’ll have anywhere else.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr


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