Part 3

One man's response to religious intolerance

“When there is greater (religious) liberty, then God can send us to another place,” states pastor and lawyer Abdías Tovilla Jaime. He is director, legal consultant and founder of CEDECH, the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense, located in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico. In the meantime, 47-year-old Tovilla, a native of Chiapas, continues to handle the “matters of expulsions and religious intolerance,” as his business card says.
On the day that I met with Tovilla, he had just returned from a meeting with the new governor of Chiapas, Roberto Albores Guillén. This fact in itself demonstrates that CEDECH is a recognized participant in the process to secure reconciliation and peace in the state. During this meeting, Tovilla says, they talked about problems of persecution from the previous year, including the expulsions from Saltillo; the thirty children from San Juan Chamula who have been barred from attending school since 1993; and the widows of recent murder victims. “The government feels it is better if the church intervenes to unite the various factions and work toward reconciliation,” Tovilla explains. Toward that end, CEDECH helped sponsor the “Third Ecumenical Encounter For the Reconciliation of Chiapas” at the end of February in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Tovilla asked Albores Guillén to send a representative. The purpose of this event, according to Tracey King, a short-term missionary serving in the CEDECH office, was to permit dialogue “between the evangelicals and Catholics of Chenalhó (i.e., location of the massacre in Acteal on December 22, 1997).” Tovilla was one of the event’s coordinators. However, “as far as government representation, there was none,” states King.
Tovilla began this ministry as a volunteer in 1981, in response to the needs of persecuted believers. “Christian brothers arrived (in San Cristóbal) who’d been beaten,” he recalls. “They’d say, ‘Pastor, help us;’ so I had to do something, even though how to defend human rights was not something I learned in seminary.” In 1992, the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico made CEDECH one of its official ministries, with the slogan “For an integral, Christian liberty” (“Por una libertad cristiana integral”).
Consequently, there are four primary “roles” that CEDECH performs. First of all, it fulfills a legal function. For example, when massive expulsions occur (see Part 2 of this series), the initial task is to evaluate the case. Of course, if the expelled believers arrive beaten and injured, they are first given medical attention. (As a matter of fact, one of our objectives in traveling to Chiapas was to deliver a large box of medicines.) Next, the formal accusation is presented to the appropriate authorities because in nearly all cases, constitutional rights have been violated.
For instance, after Christians are expelled, they can only “return to their communities with many limitations; they cannot preach, sing, or even listen to evangelical music, or have meetings,” Tovilla says. “These are the conditions the caciques present, wanting them to continue to participate in their pagan rituals. But this is a violation of their constitutional rights.”
Carlos Martínez García, a Christian columnist for the newspaper Uno Más Uno, asks: “Are perhaps the indigenous people prohibited constitutionally from the right to freedom of conscience? Should this right only be valid in the non-indigenous society? To maintain cultural unity, is it necessary to expel those who elect diversity? Is it so difficult to accept that there is more than one way to be indigenous?”
Second, CEDECH serves a pastoral and spiritual function. Many of the believers who have been beaten, jailed and expelled from their land are new converts, “just beginning to read the Bible,” as Tovilla says. So he helps them cope with these experiences that leave many traumatized. “Some have been tied to trees while their wives and daughters are raped in front of them. Children see their houses burned. Pregnant women have been forced to stay in a vacant school for three or four days without food because there was no more room in the jail.”
Salvador Lopez assists with this aspect of the ministry. Lopez is the treasurer of Agape Network (“La Red Agape”), which is a network of leaders from various denominations. He also is the pastor of a large evangelical church called The Divine Savior, located in Nueva Esperanza, a community of expelled believers on the outskirts of San Cristóbal. So Lopez helps coordinate relief efforts in the community. Aid is distributed—sometimes simply in the form of cornmeal for tortillas—that arrives not only from other areas of Mexico, but also from other countries.
Third, CEDECH performs an educational role. As the size of the congregation at The Divine Savior continues to swell, the church has spawned many daughter churches, which have been constructed nearby. Therefore, the upper floor of this church houses an interdenominational seminary that is part of the Agape Network. It was designed to help meet the leadership needs in all of these new churches, as well as in the outlying areas where the evangelicals have not been expelled. The seminary, of which Tovilla serves as director, consists of two small dormitories, a kitchen, and two large classrooms. They receive donated books. Since 1997, approximately 30 students have been coming from different ethnic groups and languages in southern Mexico.
In addition, CEDECH tries to meet the need for Bible courses in the indigenous languages. On the streets of San Cristóbal, the natives speak Tzotzil, not Spanish. So two part-time workers at the CEDECH office, Armando and Sebastian, are translating courses from Spanish into Tzotzil.
Finally, CEDECH fulfills a social and political function. Tovilla says: “We are not against the development of many different social groups to defend the rights of the indigenous peoples. The National Presbyterian Church supports this. What we do not support are the social groups that divide the communities due to political ideologies, which results in conflicts and bloodshed.” He points out that this was the cause behind the massacre in Acteal. “It was not an issue related to religious intolerance or expulsions, but purely political. The indigenous peoples are becoming ‘politicized,’” he says.
Furthermore, CEDECH assists in the economic development of the region. It provides agricultural orientation, and also helps with the sale of native crafts. Tovilla says he is looking for contacts outside of the immediate region in order to broaden the market for these items. CEDECH also is able to receive financial aid for needy families, as well as donations for scholarships at the seminary. The annual cost to sponsor a student is $850, for which contributions may be given either fully or partially.
Unfortunately, the persecution against evangelicals in Chiapas has been largely overshadowed by the Zapatista militant uprising. In fact, Emiliano Zapata, for which the militant group is named, was such a popular, Mexican folk-hero that his portrait appears on the ten-peso bill. However, the national policy of overlooking or ignoring the situation in Chiapas has proven to be a “costly” omission, says Tovilla.
After 17 years of responding to adversity and deprivation of religious liberty, Tovilla asks: “When will there be freedom to read the Bible? When will there be even a small evangelical church in Chamula?” His question, in part, is already being answered. One sign of hope and potential tolerance is the fact that the first Protestant church is under construction in the municipality of San Juan Chamula. Located in the village of Arbenza I, the project is currently suspended due to lack of funds. Yet CEDECH reports: “This is an incredible milestone for the evangelicals and one that no one imagined possible even a few years ago.”
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Copyright © 1998, by Lee Cuesta

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