MEXICO CITY (IPS)�Islam is winning converts among the indigenous
people of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where Christianity has
been the principal spiritual belief and where religious differences are
a growing source of conflict.
The newly converted Muslims, 15 of whom have already made the
pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, said they chose
Islam out of conviction, but also because they were fed up with the
often bloody clashes between Roman Catholics and Christians of other
persuasions, who also tend to be divided along political lines in
"The indigenous world has a very natural relationship with the
cosmos, which makes it easy for Indians to understand what Islam is
about," said Aurelio P�rez, the president of the Da�wa mission in
Mexico, and a holy man, or imam, of the Islamic Community of Mexico.
There are no precise statistics on the number of Muslims in Chiapas,
but local Islamic leaders say the converts number in the hundreds.
Fifteen Indians made the first pilgrimage from Chiapas to Mecca in
November with the financial support of Muslim communities abroad, said
Chiapas is one of the poorest areas of Mexico. More than one-third of
the state�s 3.5 million people are Mayan Indians, many of whom live in
the most abject poverty.
Due to religious differences, people in Chiapas have been forced to
leave their communities, deprived of their homes and possessions,
persecuted, thrown into prison and even killed, said Bishop Felipe
Arizmendi of the diocese of San Crist�bal de las Casas in Chiapas.
Chiapas is the site of the majority, and the worst, of the 20 or so
religious conflicts simmering throughout Mexico, according to the
under-secretariat of Population, Migration Services and Religious
"We no longer fear anything, now Allah protects us," one indigenous
man, Mariano Hern�ndez, told the local press in Chiapas.
Mr. Hern�ndez, who changed his name to Mamad when he converted to
Islam, lives in the Muslim community of La Esperanza along with several
of his old fellow residents of San Juan Chamula, a town where
"traditionalist Catholics" have expelled 30,000 indigenous people over
the past 20 years for professing other faiths.
The government of Vicente Fox describes Chiapas as an area at high
risk of religious conflicts, because Catholics, Protestants of various
persuasions, Jehovah�s Witnesses, Mormons and Muslims live side by side,
not always peacefully.
Many inhabitants of the rural areas of Chiapas equate being Catholic
with being a Marxist sympathizer of the Zapatista National Liberation
Army (EZLN), and see membership in any other faith as equivalent to
being a member of a paramilitary group or a supporter of the
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to
Such sentiments explain many of the conflicts in Chiapas, said Mart�n
Peralta, a sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
But he explained that the phenomenon is even more complex, as the
disputes are inextricably linked to the poverty, marginalization and
neglect by the state suffered by indigenous people in Mexico, and the
intolerance of religious leaders.
It was in Chiapas that the EZLN made its first public appearance in
January 1994, following its charismatic masked leader Subcomandante
Marcos to demand justice and respect for the rights of indigenous
Several of the founders of the armed group�which has not engaged in
fighting with the army since the second week of 1994�emerged from the
evangelization process led by then-bishop Samuel Ruiz, a proponent of
Liberation Theology, a progressive current in the Roman Catholic Church.
Mr. Ruiz, labeled the "red bishop" by his detractors, was succeeded
by Bishop Arizmendi in 2000.
While more than 90 percent of Mexico�s 100 million people are Roman
Catholics, that proportion stands at just 62 percent in Chiapas,
according to a study by the National Institute of Geographic Statistics
In addition, 12.6 percent of those surveyed by the Institute of
Statistics in Chiapas said they professed no faith, nearly four times
the nationwide proportion of 3.4 percent.
To put an end to the conflicts caused by religious differences, the
people of Chiapas "must love each other as brothers and sisters,
following the biblical precept of loving others even if they belong to
different religions or are enemies," said Bishop Arizmendi.
Since January, the bishop has been calling on religious leaders in
the state to meet in the Inter-Religious Council of Chiapas, which has
not met again since its creation in 1998.
"Not only is it will that is lacking to eliminate religious tension
in Chiapas, but what is needed here is justice and respect and
guarantees for indigenous cultures," said Mr. Peralta.