Twenty-seven families in the state of Chiapas will have their access to water and electricity restored after two years after local authorities agreed to respect religious freedom in the village of Unión Juárez, Trinitaria Municipality. The families, all Protestants, have been living without access to clean water or electricity since February 2014 because of their refusal to contribute to or participate in Roman Catholic festivals.
According to Luis Herrera of the Coordination of Christian Organisations (COOC), an agreement “which includes respect for beliefs, as well as the obligations of villagers, as long as these do not include participation in or contributions to religious festivals” was signed by local authorities on 19 February, in a process overseen by two lawyers who were supporting the victims.
COOC had repeatedly called for state government intervention, especially after many of the victims began to manifest serious health problems because of their lack of access to clean water. In September 2015, village leaders blocked three of the Protestant villagers from entering the village, citing a curfew and other restrictions placed on the movement of Protestants in the village. The men also reported that their mobile phone and cash were stolen, and one of the men was arbitrarily detained for 24 hours.
Despite these positive developments in Union Juarez, a number of other cases in Chiapas State, many of which involve forced displacement, remain unaddressed. Last week, village leaders in Yashtinín, San Cristóbal de las Casas Municipality, refused to allow the burial of an elderly Protestant man who was killed after being hit by a motorcycle.
José Moshan Ara was part of a group of 12 families comprising 40 individuals, including very young children, who were violently expelled from the village because of their religious beliefs in 2012. The group has been living in a homeless shelter in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, for the past four years. In January 2015, the State government signed an agreement to relocate the families within three months, but did not follow through on the implementation. Moshan Ara was buried on 20 February 2016 in the municipal cemetery in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
COOC is continuing to support the Yashtinín villagers, including the elderly widow of Moshan Ara and a number of other displaced Protestant communities who are waiting for the government to fulfil promises to resolve their cases.
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said, “We were happy to hear that all members of the Union Juarez village will have access to basic services, including water and electricity, regardless of their religious beliefs. However we do not believe that it should have taken the Chiapas state government two years to take action to uphold the rights of these 27 families. At the same time, we believe that the tragic death of José Moshan Ara likely could have been avoided if the state government had followed through on its promises to relocate him and the rest of the Yashtinín community. This tragedy was made even more painful by the intransigence of village authorities in refusing his right of return, even in death. During his visit to Chiapas last week, Pope Francis commented on the way indigenous people have been systematically misunderstood and excluded in Mexico. Religious minorities within indigenous communities are often doubly marginalised. We continue to call upon the Chiapas state and the Mexican federal governments to put in place effective policies and mechanisms to respond to these cases in a timely and effective manner that upholds the rights enshrined in the Mexican constitution.”
Notes to Editors
1. Conflict between traditionalist and/or syncretistic Catholics and non-Catholics is common in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Hidalgo and Puebla where there are large indigenous populations. According to Mexican legal experts, ambiguity as to the relationship between the rights laid out in the Mexican Constitution and the Law of Uses and Customs, which gives indigenous communities a degree of autonomy to exercise traditional law, have allowed local authorities to violate the rights of members of the local communities with impunity. In addition, the Mexican government’s aversion to involving itself in religious issues has allowed such situations to escalate.