The legal document is signed and all parties have conceded that Fidencio Jimenez, his wife, Petrona D�az, and their children can return to their home in Chiapas State, Mexico’s southernmost state, and one of its poorest. From Comit�n, the last major town before the Guatemalan border, Santa Rosal�a is 18 miles north on the Pan-American Highway.
The story of this family’s forced exile from Santa Rosal�a is a familiar one for many Christians in southern Mexico who have been pushed to the fringe of community life, or worse, because of their faith. The couple’s legal fight to obtain a written order permitting their return is part of the long and complicated history of anti-Christian pressure in one of Mexico’s most ungovernable regions.
Jimenez’ grandfather, of Tzeltal ancestry, settled in Santa Rosal�a to cultivate the shallow, red volcanic soil, which produced just enough to help support the family. The land was eventually handed down to his grandson Fidencio. He worked his land and did electrical and carpentry work.
In 2011, Jimenez went to Canc�n to find work, where he developed ulcers that progressed into more significant health problems, including a form of hepatitis. Jimenez sold off animals and borrowed money to pay the doctors. Malnourished and unable to eat, he ended up in the emergency room, where he was told nothing more could be done. Bedridden, Jimenez lay in a friend’s home waiting to die. “Every single day, I said goodbye to my family,” he said.
As he lay dying, visitors from a different church arrived and began to pray with Jimenez for healing. They told Jimenez something new to him. You don’t need to go to your church to pray for healing. You can pray right here, now. So they prayed together. Two days later, Jimenez was able to eat. When he regained his strength, he returned to Santa Rosal�a; that’s when the trouble began.
Filled with gratitude to God, Jimenez began attending Sunday services at an evangelical congregation in Natit�n, a good distance away from the village. He also stopped drinking. The people of Santa Rosal�a, Jimenez’s former fellow-worshipers at the Catholic Church, noticed the change.
For two years, he heard the whispers in the village, until one day a man asked point blank, “Is it true you are in another religion?” “I told them that I had changed and prayed in front of them, ‘Open their eyes, open their hearts.’ I was preparing for that moment for the last two years. They did not like that, when I prayed for them.” They told Jimenez they would take the matter to the authorities of Santa Rosal�a.
Technically, no government official anywhere has any control over which church Jimenez attends. The very first article of Mexico’s constitution forbids religious discrimination. The second article, however, carves out a giant exception. It grants “a general framework of autonomy” to Mexico’s indigenous communities, giving them latitude to “decide over their social, economic, political and cultural organization.”
That legal grey area is broadest in Mexico’s southern states where the indigenous population is concentrated. In Chiapas, about a third of the people identify as Maya Tzotzil, Tzeltal or Chol. Their ancestors entered the Catholic churches built by the Spanish invaders partly to avoid persecution by their new, heavily armed, overlords. In turn, the Spaniards permitted the Maya to bring some of their religious customs into the church as a way to help keep the peace.
During the centuries since, the tension between indigenous and national identity in southern Mexico has evolved into a complex civic, social and religious tangle. Even as official Mexico places barriers between religion and government, in the legal space granted to indigenous Mexico, church leaders and town officials are often the same people.
“Everything started to get difficult” in the spring of 2013, said Jimenez. Insults were hurled and someone even threatened to burn his house. As a concession, officials said, “We’ll give you some time.” But, the message was clear-return to the Santa Rosal�a church, resume payments for the festivals, drop the prayer meetings in Notit�n, or get out.
His sons were harassed and electricity to the Jimenez home was cut. By late July, he and his wife and their younger children left Santa Rosal�a. “For two years, it was very hard to live like that,” Jimenez said. They resettled in a friend’s house down the highway, in a shantytown flanking the city of Comit�n.
Fidencio earned about 700 pesos per week doing construction work and making bricks in Comit�n. The family has survived on the carpentry and construction wages earned by their 17-year old son. A younger son has shined shoes, and the family has also received regular government support as is part of Mexico’s negotiated relationship with indigenous citizens.
Each month Petrona D�az returned to Santa Rosal�a to pick up the government check and look in on family members -parents, kids and grandchildren-who had remained in the village. On one visit in the summer of 2013, the Santa Rosal�a authorities made her an offer. She and her children could return to the village … without Fidencio. She declined.
Later that year the family met Luis Antonio Herrera. Herrara has a knack for navigating the Mexican legal system and agreed to help them. But soon threats began anew as village authorities cut water and power to the house. The message from village elders was clear, “We don’t want evangelicals in the town.”
With no compromise in sight, Jimenez and Herrera decided to file their case in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital, demanding compensation for their damaged crops and sought the punishment, on religious-discrimination grounds.
Things went favorable for Jimenez and an official document was prepared acknowledging that throughout Mexico, including Santa Rosal�a, “there is freedom of religion, as one of the fundamental rights of every inhabitant.” It also spelled out the terms of the family’s return to the village. The town would restore water and electricity, let Jimenez work his land, collect wood and receive visitors, and permit his children to return to school. For their part, Jimenez and D�az agreed not to hold public worship services or build a church. They agreed not to engage in door-to-door evangelism, but could not be held responsible for anyone else who left the village traditionalist church. They also agreed to contribute 200 pesos a year to the church for the celebrations. “He understands it is a small price to pay for freedom,” Herrera said.
Jimenez said the legal victory he and his wife won will benefit others in the village wanting to break away from the traditionalist church. He vows to speak openly about his faith in his hometown and to return to the work he left when he was driven out. He missed out on working the 2013 corn crop, but now it is April, time to prepare the new crop. It’s time to go home.
“I know they are not going to receive me happily,” he said, “but I know I must go back.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, thank You for drawing Fidencio and Petrona into faith in Christ. We praise You for protecting them in their exile and for providing a way for them to return home. We pray for them as they seek to live lives that honor You in the midst of the hostility they will likely encounter. We pray Your continued protection over them and their family and we pray that You would prosper them in their work. And as we consider others who have broken away from the Catholic church, or will, we pray that the struggle Fidencio and Petrona have experienced will pave the way for greater freedom to worship. And we pray that You will soften the hearts of the elders and villagers to embrace them into the community and even to hear the truth of the love and grace of Christ. In the name of Jesus the light of the nations, Amen.