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North America - Mexico - Islam

Mayans in Mexico’s Chiapas Region Convert to Islam
("Deutsche Presse-Agentur," February 18, 2005)

The colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas is a much-loved tourist destination, known for its colorful Indian market.

Eleven years ago it made news across the world when the indigenous Indian population in the form of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) occupied the town and declared war on the Mexican government.

The bishop of San Cristobal at the time, Samuel Ruiz, became a figure on the world stage as he brought together representatives of the Zapatistas and the government in his cathedral.

Despite the predominance of Catholic Christianity in Mexico, Islam has established itself on the edge of the town, a little way off from the town’s beautiful and plentiful churches.

Some 300 people from the Tzotzil Mayan community now bow their heads daily in the direction of Makkah to pray to Allah.

In the madrasa — the Islamic school — children are learning the Qur’an, and many of them are also cared for, often under better circumstances than in their parental homes.

Some Tzotzils have even made the pilgrimage to Makkah.

Chiapas has been Christian since the Spanish conquest in 1524. Spanish missionaries taught the local indigenous population that God had become man in Christ and had died on the cross for mankind.

It is an historical irony that the man who came in 1995 to tell their descendants that the crucified man was not the son of God and that the true word of God lay in the words of the Qur’an was again a Spaniard.

The man from Granada was Aureliano Perez Yruela, a member of a Sunni sect. He quickly found new converts to Islam among the Tzotzil.

Most of them came from the district of San Juan Chamula, which borders San Cristobal and has long been the site of religious conflict.

Since the 1960s North American Protestant missionaries have been active there, and many families have converted from Catholicism.

They were forced out by their Catholic fellow-tribespeople and settled on the outskirts of San Cristobal. Some of these Presbyterians, Pentacostalists and Adventists have now converted again — this time to Islam.

“The whole development has taken place over three generations. The grandparents were traditional Catholics, in the 1970s some began converting to Protestantism and in 1995 they came to know Islam,” the anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho says.

In the view of Morquechos, the Chiapas community is being supported financially by foundations in Islamic countries. This enables the community to provide work, schooling, food and clothing for its members.

It is not only material benefit that has drawn the locals to Allah, but also intellectual curiosity.

“Contrary to widespread opinion here, the people of San Juan Chamula are not insular, but are open to new ideas,” Morquecho says.

When Perez Yruelas arrived in Chiapas the area was in political turmoil. The Indians who had newly converted to Islam immediately sought contact with the Zapatista movement.

“They sent them a comprehensive proposal on cooperation, but as far as I know the EZLN never answered them,” Morquecho says.

Now that Al-Qaeda has raised alarm across the world, the Mexican secret service, the CISEN, has become interested in the Islamic Mayans. As yet no anti-state activities have been uncovered.

There is also little indication that the small community will become a mass movement. In fact, the strict ideas on community life propagated by Perez Yruelas have led some families to break away yet again.