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Landowners oppose Ruiz successor

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

People “whose interests are not those of the church” are scheming to prevent Bishop Raúl Vera López from succeeding Bishop Samuel Ruiz García as bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, according to public statements of the bishops of Chiapas.

“This is not an election campaign,” Bishop Felipe Aguirre Franco of Tuxtla Gutiérrez told the press. “All the bishops of the region recognize the work of Don Samuel and the great wealth of divine grace shed by God on his ministry.” Bishop Felipe Arizmendi of Tapachula expressed himself even more vigorously. “We reject the bastard interests (los intereses bastardos) of those who want to interfere in the succession of Don Samuel,” he said. The statements are significant because the other bishops have rarely spoken out in defense of Ruiz in the past.

The situation is critical, according to the National Network of Human Rights NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). The network is a coalition of all human rights groups in Mexico, including a Jesuit-sponsored group in Mexico City and the human rights organization of the diocese of San Cristóbal. “We are alarmed by the efforts of the Mexican government to delegitimate the work of the diocese of San Cristóbal: expulsion of priests, closing churches, constant campaigns of disinformation. ... We fear that political interests may affect the succession in the diocese. ... To transfer Don Raúl would be seen as discrediting the pastoral action of the diocese, as well as an invitation to the political powers to intensify both the repression of the indigenous communities and the persecution that this church already suffers.”

This is the latest chapter in a long offensive of the cattle ranchers and big businessmen of Chiapas against the diocese of San Cristóbal. Under the leadership of Ruiz, the diocese has concentrated its pastoral efforts on helping the indigenous people — the overwhelming majority of the million and a half people in the diocese. The wealthy mestizos who traditionally have monopolized power call themselves the auténticos coletos, the “true” people of San Cristóbal. (The word coleto is from cola, the pigtails that long distinguished the men). The coletos insist that the indigenous are “people without reason,” to be kept in permanent tutelage.

In the early 1990s, the coletos embarked on a campaign of advertisements and news stories in the media to denigrate Ruiz, hoping to have him replaced as bishop. When he denounced constitutional reforms introduced by the federal government to end the ejido system of land holding that protected the land rights of indigenous communities, high members of federal and state government joined in the campaign.

When, however, the Zapatistas in January 1994 emerged in arms from the Lacandon jungle, and both the Mexican government and the Zapatistas chose Ruiz as the mediator in negotiations, the pendulum swung in Ruiz’s favor. Harassment nevertheless continued. In the first six months of 1995, seven of his priests were either expelled or denied reentry after a brief visit abroad. And in August Vera López, then bishop of Ciudad Altamirano, was named coadjutor to Ruiz. Under Canon Law, the pope can name a coadjutor with right of succession.

Vera López repulsed invitations from the coletos to become their bishop and leave Ruiz to his indigenous. Gradually it became clear that Vera López agreed with the policies of the diocesan team whose commitment to Ruiz and his vision has never been in doubt. At first he kept a low profile but recently he has been more outspoken than Ruiz in supporting diocesan policies.

Since Ruiz submitted his resignation on reaching the age of 75 last month, the coletos have concentrated on calling for a new bishop other than Vera López. As reported in the local media, the mayor of San Cristóbal, “as representative of a group of important and concerned citizens,” sent an appeal to the Vatican to move Vera López to another diocese. The continuing campaign of slander against the two bishops recently included distribution of a book of offensive cartoons at a diocesan celebration.

Ruiz used the massive commemoration just before Christmas of the massacre at Acteal two years ago to denounce a campaign that was making headlines in the national media, written and electronic. “While the communities are putting all their energies into reconciliation and building peace, we remain concerned with violations of human rights, militarization of the communities and the threat of paramilitaries who are planning new displacements. ... But we see forces, whose interests are not those of the church, who are trying to influence events so as to block the succession established by the Roman pontiff when he named a coadjutor. If the continuity of the diocesan process is not ensured, we fear that the peace process will be slowed, and that the communities, the catechists and the pastoral agents will suffer grievously, with their lives being placed in jeopardy.”

Bulletin: Lopez to be moved from San Cristóbal
At press time, the Vatican announced that Lopez would not succeed Ruiz in the San Cristóbal diocese. Instead, he has been named by John Paul II to head the Saltillo diocese in northeastern Mexico.
The Vatican took the unusual step ofssuing a statement accompanying the appointment. The Transfer of Lopez “certainly will not diminish the commitment of the church to civil peace and the spiritual and human development of all peoples” in Chiapas, it said.
“The Holy See can only renew the hope that all the parties involved in the existing tensions will find, through dialogue and through law, the concord to which they legitimately aspire,” the statment read
The Vatican said the transfer had been made for “purely ecclesial” considerations. “The sincere love of the church, the apostolic zeal and the availability which Lopez has always displayed makes him a particularly suitable leader for the important diocese of Saltillo,” the statement said.
The statement did not name a successor for Ruiz.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail: gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2000