Christmas Eve in the Dark

Christmas Eve night. Millions of people around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of a baby, a king and saviour, 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ was born to be a light to the world.

Over 1,000 miles away from Jerusalem, a mother tends to her new-born baby in total darkness. She lives in the community of El Encanto, Las Margaritas Municipality in the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. Her name is Rebeca Vasquez Cruz. Like many others in the community, her electricity supply has been cut off because of her faith. She will celebrate Christmas Eve in the dark.

A culture of abuse and impunity

The Roman Catholic Church has historically dominated the religious landscape across Latin America and particularly in Mexico. The religious hegemony of the past centuries has led to a lack of understanding about other religions, and in particular the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). In an increasingly diverse religious landscape, with 11.2% of the Mexican population identifying as Protestant Evangelical in the latest census, FoRB violations are common and widespread in Mexico.

This is particularly true among indigenous communities. Threats, illegal fines, arbitrary detention, forced displacement and the withdrawal of basic services are regularly reported to CSW by families who convert away from the majority religion in these communities and refuse to participate in activities associated with the dominant religion.

The Mexican government’s reluctance to proactively defend FoRB has established a culture of abuses and impunity that is deeply rooted within Mexican indigenous communities.

This culture is exacerbated by the national Law of Uses and Customs which grants indigenous communities significant independence in implementing their own cultural and social norms. The law was created to be exercised in line with human rights guarantees, but in practice this is rarely the case. Instead, the law is often used by local indigenous leaders to justify mandatory conformity to majority religious practice and belief. The results for anyone who refuses to conform are abuses like those seen in El Encanto.

Sadly, what is happening in El Encanto is not an isolated case – similar abuses are occurring in indigenous communities across Mexico.

‘We already know that you’re coming with your same problem, and we are not going to listen to you’

Religious discrimination has the potential to worsen in the face of government inaction. CSW receives regular reports of FoRB violations in states governed by the Law of Uses and Customs. One of the most common forms of violation is the withdrawal of basic services, such as electricity. State government officials and municipal authorities rarely intervene to restore electricity supplies, and largely ignore the plight of impacted families. 

Last year, Protestant Christians in El Encanto went to the seat of municipal authorities, Las Margaritas, to present their case and have their electricity and water supply restored. Even their children have been required to attend school in a neighbouring community, because they have been denied access to the school in their own community on account of their religious beliefs. The municipal agent, Marin Gomez Jastañel, responded, “we already know that you’re coming with your same problem, and we are not going to listen to you, return as you came.” Without intervention or fair access to justice, the denial of basic services like water, electricity and other rights, can often continue for far longer than just one Christmas.

‘They have taken access to everything’

Concepción Gómez Santis, 50, and her family have been without electricity since July 2020 – no light or refrigerator in a region with an average daily high temperature of 32°C.

In fact, they are now without access to water, sewerage and electricity services, and other rights, all because of their refusal to cooperate with religious majority activities.

On 29 November 2016, Concepción’s family had their water supply disconnected by the local authorities because they refused to pay a fine of MXN 5,000 (approximately USD 250) for not cleaning the Catholic church, which Protestant Christian women are expected to do four times a year.

In July 2018, the authorities did not allow sewage facilities to be installed in the families’ homes when the village drainage network was being built.

Then in July 2020, Concepción’s community of El Encanto began to upgrade their electricity services. Village authorities instructed the company responsible for building the power network not to provide the service to the Protestant families. Two Protestant families were forced to renounce their beliefs, paying a fine of MXN 5,000 (approximately USD 240) to have their basic services reinstated, but Concepción’s family refused to do so, and thus were denied electricity installation. They are one of six Protestant families and a single man in the village who have reported their electricity being cut off last year.

The financial impacts upon Concepción’s family are severe: no electricity means no power for refrigerators in their small store. Precious food quickly spoils and is often wasted. When the local authorities first removed their electricity supply, the family lost around MXN 3,000 (approximately USD 140) in products like ice, meat, cheese, chicken, ham and sausages.

In a conversation with CSW, Concepción reflected that families living without basic services feel weighed down with sadness and stress. She told us “they have taken access to everything.” These words, in a season which for many epitomises plenty and giving, ring loud in our ears.

Too long in the dark

Traditionally, Christmas is a time of light. A time of glowing fires, of twinkling lights on a tree, of the lone bright star of Bethlehem, of the light of the world coming to dwell among us. But for Concepción and Rebeca and their families, a Christmas in the light is next to impossible. Christmas Eve just like every other, will take place in the dark.

Back in her small room in El Encanto, Rebeca lights a match. On this Christmas eve night, the young mother must nurse her baby by the flickering light of a candle. The families of El Encanto have lived for too long in the dark. We must act now against violations of FoRB in Mexico. This Christmas we must take a stand with Concepción, Rebeca, and the many families like them who suffer for their religious beliefs.

By CSW’s Advocacy Intern