Casto’s Choice: Forced Conversion or Forced Displacement

Casto sat at the table with other Christian leaders from the Huasteca region of Mexico. In April he had been talkative and his face had been animated. Now, in October, he was quiet and rarely looked up. One of the other leaders approached me privately and expressed concern about him. During the five-hour road trip to attend the workshop, he had told the other participants that he was so depressed that he hadn’t been able to attend church in a month.

This was the same man who, seven months earlier, had energetically defended his right to practice his religious beliefs at great cost. In March, he was summoned from his fields to appear at his community assembly in the village of Chichiltepec. Casto stopped his work and went to the assembly, accompanied by his cousin Juan. There, the village delegate (leader), Jesús Domínguez Hernández, told him to sign a document obligating him to renounce his Protestant beliefs – in violation of Mexico’s constitution, which protects freedom of religion or belief, and its international obligations, including the Inter-American Covenant on Human Rights which explicitly upholds the right to maintain or change ones religious beliefs.

Casto refused and Juan stood with him. The community assembly took the two young men by force and put them in a rustic jail cell carved into the side of a hill, with the bars of the door open to the chilly and damp weather. The two men were held there, with no sanitary facilities, for 30 hours. Casto was removed periodically to see if he would sign the document. He continued to refuse.  Finally the village delegate realised their pressure tactics were not going to work, released the men,  and gave Casto eighteen hours to leave the village – declaring it to be a ‘Catholic-only village’.

Implications of forced displacement

Forced displacement under these circumstances implies much more than a simple move to another location. For someone like Casto, who is single and indigenous, it means being cut off from his family and relatives, his ethnic and linguistic group, his ancestral land, home and livelihood. It can mean a culture shock for someone like Casto, who is forced to flee his home in a very rural, agricultural based community and seek refuge in an urban area where they may not possess the skills needed for local employment. It’s no surprise then that this might lead to severe depression.

The case before the Human Rights Commission

The case was very clear cut.

Casto immediately filed a complaint with the local office of the state Human Rights Commission. The village delegate freely admitted to the Human Rights Commission officials that he had attempted to force Casto to change his religious beliefs by imprisoning him and then forcibly displacing him when Casto refused. In contrast to many other cases, Casto has had excellent pro bono legal representation through a grant to cover legal fees and travel facilitated by CSW. Official psychologists examined Casto and Juan, concluding that they exhibited clear signs of severe psychological distress and trauma as a result of their ordeal.

However, seven months later, the case is at a standstill and charges for what were clearly criminal acts have not been filed. Government officials tasked with reviewing the case have repeatedly cancelled or postponed important hearings, making it difficult for the Casto’s legal team, who have to travel seven hours on a treacherous road, to attend, and exhausting their funds.

In October, Casto told us that he had been encouraged privately to drop the case by those government officials, without his lawyers present. They promised him that if he went back to his village quietly, he wouldn’t have any problems, however they offered no evidence of guarantees that his rights would be respected.

Workshops on responding to violations freedom of religion and belief

The workshop Casto attended focused on strengthening the participants’ understanding of freedom of religion or belief and teaching them how to good documentation can help them respond to violations they saw or experienced personally.

It concluded with a practical exercise, preparing a case for submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Casto and Juan carefully handwrote their submission with the assistance of a number other participants, which I submitted on their behalf when I returned to CSW.

It can be frustrating when we see no movement – or movement in the wrong direction in this work. It is even more frustrating when the legal framework to protect freedom of religion or belief and other basic human rights exists, but is ignored or manipulated by government officials who are supposed to uphold these rights, either because of corrupt structures or simply because of laziness and inertia.  In the end, innocent citizens like Casto, who could contribute so much to their communities and their country, pay the price.

Sharing the burden

By the conclusion of the workshop, I saw more of the cheerful and animated man I’d met in April. The workshop helped; and being able to spend time with others who had experienced religious persecution, to talk openly about his experiences in a safe place where what he had to say was taken seriously, and to hear from CSW face to face was also clearly of great encouragement to him. We had not forgotten him and would continue to defend him.

At the end of the day, as the workshop participants prepared for the five-hour journey back to the Huasteca, Casto said, “These seven months have been very hard. I wondered where God has been as it seems like there has been no progress. But then I read in the Bible that the Israelites didn’t see any progress either – for forty years! I hope I do not have to wait forty years, but if they could do that, I think I can keep going.”

Casto’s words challenged me.

I also hope it won’t be forty years, but if he can keep going, I think I can keep going. And if at some point he or others like him can’t keep going because it’s just too much, I pray for the strength to take up their burden and to keep going on their behalf.

By Anna-Lee Stangl, CSW’s Senior Advocate for the Americas