Lauro Pérez Núñez, a convert to the Protestant faith, was ordered to leave his community last year for violating what local authorities claimed was the village’s “custom” of belonging to the “traditionalist” church, which blends aspects of indigenous paganism and popular Catholicism.
Although a district judge permitted him to return home in March 2016, he found he was still not welcome. The Mexican Constitution guarantees the right of indigenous communities to regulate their own affairs, so long as these do not affect individual liberties and human rights.
His case is currently in the hands of the National Council of Religious Tolerance, an association of Christian organisations created in January 2016 to fight for religious freedom in Mexico.
Núñez, 36, converted to Protestantism at a young age, but soon faced problems because his beliefs contrasted with most of the other 250 people living in the village of La Chachalaca, in the district of Santiago Camotlán, Oaxaca.
“In the beginning there were about 16 families in the village that practised [Evangelical Christianity],” Núñez said. “But the accusations that we were against the beliefs of the majority, that we were attempting to go against the community, made many stop expressing their ideas.”
Núñez refused to change his beliefs, but then the threats began.
On 4 July, 2015, he was imprisoned for 48 hours for “violating”, according to the explanation of the local authorities, the “custom” of professing only one faith as a community.
Ten days later, he was imprisoned a second time. This time, however, he says the authorities demanded that he deny his beliefs.
“Since I did not accept, they told me that they would end up throwing me out of village and they would no longer recognise me as a citizen,” he said. “I was detained for 48 hours.”
On 20 August, the day children were enrolled for the new school year, the principal told him she would no longer accept his children. (Attempts to make contact with the principal have been unsuccessful.)
The next day, Núñez was arrested and told that he would be imprisoned if he refused to leave the village.
“I had to sneak out of the community, but I returned on 1 September because my mother told me that they wanted to talk to me and find a solution for this situation,” he said. “But there was no agreement. I was arrested again and held for 48 hours. Finally I got out on the third day, but I was arrested again that same night.”
Núñez filed an appeal with the district judge in Oaxaca and after three months he was told he could return home.
On 28 March, 2016, he returned to La Chachalaca, only to find he was still not welcome.
“As soon as they saw me, they told me I had an hour to leave,” he said. “I showed them the judge’s decision, but that made things worse. I started to receive death threats and I was told that I only had 15 minutes to leave.”
A group of around 30 people amassed at his mother’s house, where he was staying. They cut the electricity and started banging on the walls. Núñez recalls that his sister went outside to face the crowd.
“Since they tried to hurt her, my cousin, Misael, went out to defend her and received a beating,” Núñez said. “This time, we were both detained nearly 55 hours, in which I was told that if I did not drop the appeal to the district judge, they would take my mother’s house away.”
The municipal police officer, Pascual Díaz Morales, told the NSS Oaxaca news organisation that Núñez and his cousin had refused to fulfil their duties as part of the community, and should therefore be evicted.
In a press release on 4 April, the National Council for Religious Tolerance condemned the attacks against Evangelical groups in La Chachalaca and asked for the intervention of national and international organisations.
Luis Herrera, the Council’s advocacy coordinator, also committed to provide legal aid to Núñez and to visit the area. A local advocacy organisation, Coordinación de Organizaciones Cristianas, has also taken up Núñez’s case.
“This situation has been really hard, but especially hard for my children, who are aged 11, 10, 9 and 2, and don’t understand anything that is happening,” Núñez said. “Today they are going to school in another community located miles away from my community.”
Mexico is 82 per cent Catholic. Evangelicals account for around 5 per cent of the population and Pentecostals 1.6 per cent.
Mexico ended 2015 with nearly 10,000 claims of alleged human-rights violations, an increase of 18 per cent from the previous year. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in October 2015 that nearly 98 per cent of the cases were still unresolved.
In rural communities, Protestants face problems if they refuse to contribute to local social and religious festivities. Religious intolerance in Mexico, mostly against the Protestant minority, is increasing. Several families, like Núñez’s, have faced eviction from their indigenous communities and experienced harassment, arrest and imprisonment from local authorities.
In June 2015, 12 Evangelical Christian families were permitted to return to their village in Chiapas after five years of exile imposed for leaving the “traditionalist” church.
It was a similar story in April 2014 for Fidencio Jiménez and his family, who were allowed to return home to their Chiapas village after a year in exile for not paying towards the village’s religious festivals.