All Saints Day Takes on New Meaning after Trip to Chiapas

By Chittister, Joan | National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

All Saints Day Takes on New Meaning after Trip to Chiapas


Chittister, Joan, National Catholic Reporter


We were standing in line to check baggage when I saw the newspapers on the counter. I and 15 other members of the Interfaith International Peace Council were leaving San Christobal, Mexico, the home diocese of Bartolomeo de Las Casas, the first great advocate of Indian rights. We had just seen for ourselves for the second time in two years the suffering and destitution of the Indians of Chiapas, as well as the government's fear of them. Any government that moves 60 percent of its modern, technologically sophisticated federal army against peasants armed with machetes has got to be afraid of something.

There, in front of us, two major newspapers carried front-page stories and feature articles labeling 74-year-old Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of Chiapas, the Nobel Peace Prize candidate and hero to the Indians, a "guerrilla priest."

Both stories were deceptively straightforward, apparently reportorial: Money had come into the diocese for the Indians, the first story alleged, but could not be accounted for. The second story was even more clever. It accused the bishop of orchestrating the Indian tribes' rebellion. His purpose? To sustain an 8 million dollar stream of foreign donations for which there has been no public accounting.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The Peace Council itself is one of the 25 groups who are said to have donated to projects in the area. We gave $27,000 over a two-year period. To produce the amount the papers imply Ruiz received, each group would have had to have given a minimum of $80,000 a year for four years. Most active in the area are even smaller than we are. The situation hardly smacks of an economic windfall for Ruiz or anybody else, hardly a fortune with which to meet even the daily needs of a bereft population. It's a scurrilous reading of international concern for an issue that draws little positive concern from local and national officials,

Clearly, Ruiz is a threat to someone. But why? I think I saw and touched and tasted the answer to my own question.

What I was not able to get out of my mind as I read the articles was the memory of pictures of murdered children and their mothers, pasted crudely on the wall behind the burial site we had just visited. What I could not erase from memory was the ravine where the gravesite was located, five times deeper than any I had ever seen. The army was armed to the teeth only miles behind us; the people lived there on a sharp mountainside in shacks on stilts. What I could not ignore as I studied the cold, devious articles was the memory of hundreds of Indians who stood patiently at the gravesite as we approached. What I could not drown out was the sound of them shouting "Viva, Dom Samuel" as we struggled down the slippery slope behind a procession of Indian banners and an old woman carrying incense while the wind screeched through the sugar cane slats of the huts around us.

The Peace Council, which boasts three Nobel Peace Prize nominees among its members -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Maha Ghosananda, the Buddhist Patriarch of Cambodia who organized the Land Mine pilgrimages; and the Dalai Lama of Tibet -- was in Chiapas as a group of religious figures from various denominations around the world, to bring a word of comfort, encouragement and hope. But looking around me on that mountainside, I had trouble finding words of comfort in my heart. …

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