The Power of Personal Testimony: A Mexican Delegation Visits Congress

Casto Hernandez Hernandez and Fidel Lopez Hernandez are from indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico, speak Spanish as second language and live in remote, subsistence farming communities. Both were forcibly displaced because of their religious beliefs. This year, they made an unprecedented trip to Washington DC, facilitated by CSW, to give their testimony to Congress in person – the first time victims of similar offences from Mexico have done so.

Their stories are depressingly similar. Fidel Lopez Hernandez was one of a group of 47 protestant Christians violently expelled from their village by the Roman Catholic majority in July 2012. In March 2015 the group were able to return to their homes and only then under an agreement which included a fine of 10,000 pesos per family (equivalent to 530 US dollars). Additionally, in their absence, the villagers had used their homes as rubbish dumps and the government did not follow through with promised funds to restore their houses.*

Casto’s case will be familiar to regular readers of this blog; read more about him here and here. Casto and his cousin were illegally arrested in their town in Hidalgo State in March 2015 by the local authorities and held for 30 hours with no water, food or access to sanitary facilities in an effort to pressure them to renounce their faith. Although an agreement established by the Hidalgo State Public Ministry allowed the men to return home in February 2016, they, like Fidel, are still subject to illegal restrictions on their right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in their hometown.

An Unprecedented Advocacy Tour to Washington, DC

On May 23 Fidel and Casto made the journey from Mexico to Washington, DC. It was their first trip to the USA and the first time Casto had ever left his country. They travelled with religious freedom defenders Dr. Jorge Lee Galindo of Impulso 18 and Luis Herrera of the Coordination of Christian Organisations (COOC).

The aim of the visit was for the four men to meet with different congressional offices, the State Department and various NGOs to give both Casto and Fidel the opportunity to share their stories. While CSW has brought religious freedom defenders to Washington, DC before, this was the first time Mexican victims of FoRB violations had ever come to Washington, DC to share their personal experiences directly with policy makers. It was our hope that hearing from the victims themselves would move those with whom they met to prioritise FoRB in the US relationship with Mexico.

Mexico is a priority country for CSW due to the fact that both moderate and severe violations of FoRB regularly occur throughout the country. In many cases the Mexican Government is reluctant to involve itself in these issues which leads to impunity and causes the number of these violations to increase.

The Power of Personal Testimony

Over the course of the advocacy tour, the group met directly with four Members of Congress, including three chairmen of key Congressional committees and commissions.

Even though neither man had ever had such high level meetings before, it was immediately clear that both were confident and articulate in explaining their own cases as well the broader systematic violations of freedom of religion or belief in Mexico. This was a pattern that continued throughout; on each occasion we introduced ourselves and briefly explained our intentions before Castro and Fidel took the lead in describing their personal experiences and the situation in Mexico from their point of view.

In every meeting, I was struck by their calm, yet authoritative demeanour. They also emphasised that their situations were not unique but instead highlighted the situations faced by thousands of others in Mexico. It was clear that Members of Congress and their staffers were deeply moved by Casto and Fidel’s testimonies; staffers and even Members of Congress asked to pray with the men about their situations and two of the Members of Congress ignored entreaties from their staff to finish up to move to the next meeting, in order to spend a little more time with them.

A particular highlight was the Wilberforce 21 Initiative’s Emerging Leaders Forum, where Casto and Fidel gave detailed accounts of their stories in a more informal setting and answered questions from around 25 young people who participated the forum, as well as some of the organisers. Their testimonies brought people to tears and it was clear that many of these emerging leaders went away with a newly fuelled and informed passion for the FoRB situation in Mexico.

As in every meeting, the presence of the Mexican men and their willingness to share painful stories made a problem that can often seem so distant and unimaginable, extremely real and personal.

The Impact

Overall, Casto and Fidel’s willingness to travel and to share their stories personally with policy makers has had an enormous impact on those with whom they met.

Many expressed surprise at the gravity of violations of FoRB violations in Mexico and promised to prioritise this as an issue in their interaction with the Mexican government.

The time spent with Fidel and Casto, as well as Luis and Jorge also had a huge impact on a personal level. As a new member of staff, this was my first advocacy tour with a delegation and it provided me with first-hand insights into the lives of people who we have to privilege of working with. Their courage and determination has increased my own motivation to work to bring change to Mexico and listening to them over the week has given me a deeper understanding of the complexities in their country and the importance of not backing down in the face of adversity. I would like to use these lessons in my own advocacy work and to continually remind myself of their hope and belief that change can take place in these communities.

Although Casto and Fidel both returned to Mexico after our visit encouraged, they were also aware that they were returning to situations where their right to FoRB continues to be violated on a daily basis. This is the case for thousands of other Mexicans in the states of Chiapas and Hidalgo as well as Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, Michoacan and Jalisco. The forced displacement of religious minorities is something which has continued and, in some places, increased in severity throughout 2016. Many religious minorities also face religious persecution in other forms such the cutting of basic services like electricity and access to clean water and arbitrary detentions.

“The forced displacement of religious minorities is something which has continued and, in some places, increased in severity throughout 2016.”

Casto and Fidel expressed their astonishment that so many high level policy makers made time to meet with them and to hear their stories and recommendations. They remarked that, sadly, they would never see doors open to them in the same way in Mexico, even by their own representatives in the Mexican Congress.

We hope that even if their own government won’t listen to them that it will listen to the policy makers Casto and Fidel met in the United States.

CSW is dedicated not just to being a voice for the voiceless but to giving the voiceless a platform to speak for themselves. Giving individuals the opportunity to share their personal testimonies at the highest levels will continue to be a key part of our advocacy work and that it will start to bring about positive change in Mexico. 

By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer

*Click here to read CSW’s latest report on freedom of religion or belief in Mexico, May 2016.