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New Chiapas bishop steps in with caution

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“I come with the will to serve, to learn and to understand the reality of this region.” This was the message of Don Felipe Arizmendi, new bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, at a diocesan assembly in late May. He addressed some 250 priests, religious and lay pastoral coordinators.

Arizmendi’s first moves are being closely watched, in Chiapas and around the world, for signals of how he will interpret the legacy of the man he replaced, the controversial Samuel Ruiz García. Bishop Ruiz was a hero to some and an arch-villain to others for his defense of indigenous persons and his support for liberation theology.

The Chiapas assembly had two major pieces of business: to present the decisions of the diocesan synod, which closed last Dec. 31 after five years of deliberations, and to name officials of the new administration.

The synod had defined the priorities of the diocese. It is committed to creating an autonomous church, that is to say, one able to express the faith of the people within their own cultural forms, and able also to provide its own ministers. It seeks to be a liberating church, an evangelizing church, and a servant church, always in communion with the universal church. It has opted for the poor and for peace.

Ruiz had established the practice of having the assembly elect diocesan officials. Arizmendi modified this practice. He himself made appointments after having heard the assembly’s recommendations, though in every instance he followed the assembly’s advice.

At least two major diocesan officials under Ruiz are being retained in their offices: Sr. Migdalia Pérez Novar, chancellor, and Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte, vicar of peace and justice. Fr. Gustavo Andrade Hernández is the new vicar general, replacing Fr. Felipe Toussaint whose canonical term had expired. Fr. Joel Padrón González becomes the bishop’s personal secretary.

Ruiz will continue as president of the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center. The center, created by Ruiz and noted for its whistle-blowing against human rights abuses in Chiapas, is legally independent as a civil nonprofit institution. Ituarte continues as a member of the board of directors.

Analysts of the situation in Chiapas are unanimous in noting the caution with which the new bishop has begun his work. According to observers there, he is under enormous pressures, from the six powerful curial cardinals opposed to Latin America’s liberation theology (NCR, June 2), from the Mexican federal and state governments, and from the auténticos coletos (local ranchers and businessmen). All of them, for their different reasons, want the diocese to stop enabling the indigenous to take charge of their own lives both religiously and politically.

Arizmendi has clearly shown his agreement with Ruiz in at least one critical area: ending the violence that the indigenous suffer from the Mexican army and paramilitary groups. Both Ruiz and Arizmendi stressed this priority when they led an annual pilgrimage from Chiapas to the sanctuary of Guadalupe, north of Mexico City, several hundred miles away. There they presided at a Mass May 21. Ruiz, in his homily, committed himself to continue to work for peace in Chiapas. He also praised his successor’s appointments and ratifications as signs of continuity in the pastoral journey of the diocese.

Repeated attempts by NCR to reach Arizmendi for comment were unsuccessful.

Violence against both the church and the people has increased in Chiapas since Ruiz’s resignation last November. In February, the United Nations relator for extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions reported that extrajudicial executions were widespread and ongoing in Chiapas. She called for demilitarization and removal of the army from police functions.

Pressures continue from other sources as well. Also in February, a right-wing organization, Development, Peace and Justice, with the aid of state officials, appointed a priest not approved by the diocese, and also appointed catechists to the village of Jol-Ako in the municipality of Tila.

In March, La Jornada, a Mexican City newspaper, reported a major increase both in the number of paramilitary groups and in their attacks on communities sympathetic to the Zapatistas, a rebel movement drawn largely from the ranks of poor and indigenous persons in Chiapas. In that month also, Bishop Raúl Vera López, who had been Ruiz’s coadjutor and had not yet taken up his new post as bishop of Saltillo, said that assaults against catechists were getting worse, as were the closing of chapels and attacks against defenders of human rights. As a pressure technique on the diocese, state authorities have closed 35 churches and chapels since 1995.

In April a group of Mexican legislators, academics and artists said Chiapas now contains 300 barracks, camps and checkpoints, and that the army and paramilitaries are tightening the ring around the Zapatistas. While the federal government is unlikely to move militarily against the Zapatistas before the federal and state elections due in July, the military buildup makes it clear that the option of a full-scale attack remains open.

Gary MacEoin may be reached at gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000