‘Renounce your faith or leave’: The Ultimatum facing a number of Protestant families in Mexico

While the Mexican constitution provides strong protections for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), moderate to severe violations of this right are regular occurrences in many parts of the country, particularly the states of Chiapas, Hidalgo and Oaxaca. Often these violations take the form of local authorities attempting to enforce conformity on religious minorities, for example, by denying access to basic services to Protestant families in majority Catholic villages.

CSW’s latest fact-finding visit to Mexico revealed a number of cases where Protestant families have been presented with an ultimatum to either renounce their faith or leave their village before a specific deadline.

To take one example, last year in Colonia Los Llanos in the San Cristóbal de las Casas Municipality, Chiapas, several Protestant families were forced to leave their village after they defied orders to renounce their religious beliefs. CSW also found evidence of similar experiences in two more communities in Chiapas and another in Oaxaca during the visit.

These ultimatums do not come out of nowhere and tend to follow years of religious tension.

Tensions include but are not limited to threats, cutting off basic services and attempts to force minority groups to pay fines or participate in religious activities. In another example, just last month community leaders in another part of Chiapas refused to allow the burial of a Protestant woman in the village cemetery and her family were forced to bury her in a nearby city.   The Mexican government regularly fails to act to reduce such tensions or to stop the deliverance of ultimatums. A culture of impunity surrounds the local authorities responsible for these violations of FoRB.

How did we get here?

As in many other cases, the Protestant community at Alas de Águila Church in Colonia Los Llanos had experienced years of pressure, discrimination and harassment before they were delivered the ultimatum. A group of Protestant families were previously expelled from the village in 2009, and when they attempted to return they were met with violence and threats of being burned alive. This prompted a village meeting where it was ordered that the only faith that could be practiced in Colonia Los Llanos was Catholicism.

Another group of Protestant families remained in the village for several years until 2 September 2017, when seven families were summoned by community authorities and informed that they had been watching them. They had realised that the Protestant families were still gathering to worship and practice their faith in another community. The authorities decided that as punishment the Protestant families would not receive their share of the money their community had earned selling trees, an amount of 132,000 pesos (£5,463) per family.

It was at this point that the families were delivered the ultimatum: to renounce their faith, or be forced to leave the village. They were given until 15 January 2018 to make the decision.

What happens next?

These violations of FoRB are rarely met with any government response. Despite recommendations from the National Human Rights Commission in support of the victims of the 2009 forced displacement in Los Llanos, the Chiapas state government never took any action to implement the recommendations or to address the situation after the aborted attempt to return. Very much aware of this history, in October 2017 the second group of Protestant families decided they had no choice but to leave Colonia Los Llanos in the face of continued harassment and threats.

Initially the families would occasionally return to the village to check their crops, however in December 2017 two local officials told them that this was no longer permitted. At this point the families decided to harvest their crops and remove the wood from their homes in order to build elsewhere. They have not returned to the village since.

As a result of their displacement many of the families’ children were unable to attend school for several weeks until they could be enrolled elsewhere. During CSW’s most recent visit, sources confirmed that some of the children remained out of school nearly one year after being forcibly displaced. Again this is no isolated case, children who have been forcibly displaced frequently lack the required paperwork to enrol at a school in their new place of residence, CSW’s Faith and a Future report details numerous case studies in which forcibly displaced children were unable to enjoy their fundamental right to education.

The state and federal governments’ inaction cannot be allowed to continue.

Local authorities responsible for FoRB violations must be held to account for breaking the law, and more must be done to promote religious tolerance between different faith groups in the country to stop communities from ever reaching these crunch points.

As the scheduled review of Mexico’s human rights record starts to get underway this week in the form of preliminary sessions as part of the process at the United Nations Human Rights Council, government inaction in cases like that of Colonia Los Llanos will be highlighted in the hopes that the Mexican government will start to take steps to prevent them from happening again.

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer