So Far from God, So Close to Rome BY JOHN ROSS Mexico City VATICAN HAS initialed proceed ings to remove Mexico’s leading lib eration theologian from the southern Mexican diocese he has served for 33 years. The Holy See’ s efforts to separate Bishop Samuel Ruiz from his largely Mayan Indian diocese, centered in San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state of Chiapas, has ignited a firestorm of controversy both inside and outside of Roman Catholic Church circles. After returning from Rome in October, Papal Nuncio Giralamo Prigione, a longtime critic of Ruiz, summoned the Bishop to Mexico City to read him the contents of a letter issued by the Sacred Congregation of Bishops, charging “faults in governance” \(falin the administration of the San Cristobal diocese. In addition, the epistle, apparently signed by influential African prelate Bernardin Gantin, accused Ruiz of disseminating a Marxist interpretation of the Gospel, incorrect theological reflection and “pastoral exclusion?’ In accordance with Canon Law 401, a bishop who has not yet removed for “grave cause” Members of the Mexican Episcopal Commission \(Comision Episcopado Mexicano, or tell reporters that the Nuncio refused to provide Ruiz a copy of the Vatican letter and ordered the San Cristobal churchman to answer the allegations in writing or by appearing in person in Rome. Prigione insists that he merely acted as a messenger from the Sacred Congregation and was not instructed to turn over the letter to to the Bishop. “I am still the Bishop of San Cristobal,” Ruiz contends. Papal Nuncio Prigione has gained considerable stature here since diplomatic relations between Mexico and the Vatican were resumed last year after a century-long hiatus. Indeed, with the assassination of Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas and the lingering illness of Mexico’s first Cardinal, Ernesto Corripio, aging head of the Mexico City archdiocese, Prigione appears to be the most powerful churchman in the Mexican hierarchy. The Nuncio has long feuded with Bishop John Ross is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. 8 DECEMBER 10, 1993 Ruiz, reportedly supported the deportations of activist foreign priests, prohibited liberationist clergy from attending conferences in Mexico and criticized the San Cristobal Bishop’s political views. After the charges against Ruiz were leaked to the Mexico City press, Prigione angrily told a delegation of Ruiz supporters that had traveled from Chiapas to confront the Nuncio that their bishop had fomented conflict in his diocese for decades and that his pronouncements “had offended the Pope” Newspaper accounts have challenged Prigione’ s role as a disinterested messenger. El Financiero political columnist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa charged on October 24 that the letter from the Sacred Congregation of Bishops had been “dictated by the Mexican government” and conveyed to Rome by the Nuncio to settle old scores with the San Cristobal prelate. The controversial columnist also charged that Ruiz’s removal was part of a deal between the government and the Mexican hierarchy to rid the nation of priests who have proven troublesome for both authorities. This arrangement, Granados contends, is payback for recent constitutional reform that has granted the Mexican Catholic Church legal standing for the first time in 100 years. The Papal Nuncio responded to the allegations by threatening a defamation suit. Patrocinio Gonzalez told reporters that his powerful internal security ministry has received complaints about Bishop Ruiz’s administration of his diocese but denies that they were passed on to the Vatican. Gonzalez and Ruiz frequently clashed when the Interior Secretary was governor of Chiapas, most publicly over the imprisonment of activist priest Joel Padron, who was accused of leading a land takeover in the state’s Mayan highlands. Bishop does not discount .government pressures to have him removed. Suggestions that the government and the Nuncio are conspiring against him “certainly carry more weight” now that Mexico and the Vatican have resumed diplomatic relations, Don Samuel told the critical weekly, Proceso. Given the prickly relationship between Gonzalez and Ruiz, all eyes were focused on the Chiapas capitol of Tuxtla Gutierrez on November 4, when the Secretary presented the Bishop of San Cristobal with a certificate of legal recognition of his diocese, as stipu lated by the new Law of Religious Associations. After a perfunctory embrace, Gonzalez called the Bishop “an old friend” and reiterated that the Mexican government does not intervene in internal ecclesiastical affairs. “Never before have relations between Church and State been so amiable as they are now,” the Interior Secretary said. Ruiz’s three-decade reign in San Cristobal has been characterized by his oft-stated cornpromiso con los pobres in liberationist terminology, “commitment to the poor.” Under Bishop Ruiz’s administration, the number of priests in his jurisdiction has grown from 13 to 120, according to diocesan sources. There are 7,000 indigenous catechists in the diocese, a network of Christian base communities and social organizations and a militant human rights center. Ruiz, 69, who this autumn was awarded the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights medal in Washington, has consistently defended the poor in his diocese from abuses by Chiapas’ tiny cattle-ranching elite, state security forces and the Mexican military. Most recently, the Bishop has been accused of fomenting guerrilla activities in his diocese. The attacks upon Don Samuel intensified last spring after two army officers were ambushed in a highland Tzotzil village and the Bishop’s Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center came to the defense of 13 accused Indians, winning their release. In May, after two more soldiers were killed in a reported confrontation with “40 armed men,” ranchers again accused Ruiz of supplying the alleged guerrilla fighters. Wall writings appeared that characterized the Bishop “A Chieftain” and ballads were sung that assailed Ruiz as “a guerrillero disguised as a Bishop.” Such calumnies are anything but new in this conflictive region, remarks local historian Andres Aubry. Five hundred years ago, Bartolome de las Casas, the city’s founder, was also accused of inciting indigenous uprising. But the reasons for the Vatican’s efforts to oust Bishop Ruiz could have more to do with a pastoral letter, En Esta Hora de Gracia \(“In to Pope John Paul on August 6 when the Pontiff met with Mayan Indians on the Yucatan peninsula. The letter underscored Indian landlessness, lack of employment and human rights abuses in the San Cristobal diocese. It also questioned the government’s ,
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