After a brutal attack on one of their own, a religious minority community in Mexico is waiting for justice and religious freedom

Maria Concepción began 2023 in hospital recovering from a brutal physical attack that was linked to her membership of a religious minority in her community. On 1 January she was admitted to intensive care due to constant vomiting that meant she was unable to keep food down. She spent ten days there before she was briefly released only to be returned to intensive care due to vomiting blood on 18 January.

As doctors did not report any improvement at first, her family did not see much hope at all, to the point that members of her church in Rancho Nuevo in the Huejutla de los Reyes Municipality of Hidalgo state, Mexico, had cleared a piece of land for her burial.

Mercifully, she pulled through. She returned home on 9 February, and today she walks with the help of her son and a cane. She still suffers from persistent back pain caused by being forcefully thrown into the trunk of a tree, but her recovery remains nothing short of miraculous.

A history of exclusion

Maria Concepción should never have been subjected to this ordeal in the first place. A member of the Great Commission Baptist Church in Rancho Nuevo, she and her fellow churchgoers have been the target of hostility and harassment as far back as 2015.

As is the case in many rural and indigenous communities in Mexico, people like Maria Concepción who convert away from the majority religion – often a combination of Roman Catholicism or traditional indigenous beliefs – can face intense pressure, usually from neighbours and local leaders that pressure them to join or return to the majority faith.

For Protestant Christians in Rancho Nuevo, this has meant that they have been prohibited from burying their dead in the community graveyard, barred from accessing medical care, denied access to government benefit programmes, sacked from their jobs, had their farmlands arbitrarily confiscated and more. Many have been arbitrarily detained and beaten and even children have been victims of assaults and robberies whilst being barred from attending the local public school since August 2018.

A cruel and merciless attack

These hostilities became more pronounced than ever in December 2022 when Maria Concepción was tied to a tree and severely beaten and threatened by multiple local leaders from her community.

The attack took place after Maria Concepción visited a plot of land that she owns to cut down two trees that her neighbour feared might fall onto their newly constructed house. As she began to cut them down, the leaders arrived and ordered her to stop, in accordance with a 2015 decree that had prohibited members of the Great Commission Baptist Church from accessing their lands or cultivating crops on them.

Video footage shows at least eight or nine men gathering around Maria Concepción before the community leader Fermín Hernández Hernández appears to knock the phone out of her hand. The pastor of Maria’s church, Rogelio Hernández Baltazar attempted to intervene, however he too was physically assaulted and detained for two hours during which local leaders demanded that he hand over the deeds to ten plots of land belonging to members of the Baptist church.

The impact of the attack had initially terrible consequences for Maria Concepción’s health. Whilst recovering in bed she began to report pain in her abdomen and was taken to the local hospital where medical staff determined that they needed to remove her gallbladder, which was carried out without complication on 29 December.

However, just days later, Maria Concepción was readmitted to hospital. She was later diagnosed with acute diabetes ketoacidosis (DKA), an often fatal condition that can be triggered by physical and/or emotional trauma and internal injuries. Her underlying medical condition of diabetes was so aggravated by the cruel and merciless attack to the point that it almost cost Maria Concepción her life.

A need for justice

But while Maria Concepción’s continuing recovery in the face of such odds should definitely be celebrated, there remains an urgent need to ensure that she and her community receive justice.

Hidalgo State officials have been aware of the situation in Rancho Nuevo since at least as far back as October 2015, yet they have taken no action to protect the rights of the religious minority and instead have sided with the community leaders and have verbally told members of the religious minority that they should comply with the community leaders’ orders to participate in activities associated with the religious majority.

It is impossible for state or municipal officials to plead ignorance, particularly as the situation of children prohibited from attending the local public school has been reported multiple times in local media. The authorities are aware, they just aren’t doing anything, and as a result of this a woman was almost killed.

This must change; not just in Rancho Nuevo, but in many communities across Mexico where local authorities attempt to enforce religious uniformity through all manner of violations that are invariably carried out within a culture of impunity.

The Mexican government must ensure that legal guarantees for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) are upheld for all, and that these are not infringed upon by other legislation such as the Law of Uses and Customs which protects the right of indigenous communities to govern themselves according to traditional laws and customs.

That means it must bring to justice individuals like Fermín Hernández Hernández and other leaders in Rancho Nuevo responsible for such an egregious act of violence; it must train authorities at every level to address intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief; and it must do everything in its power to ensure that people like Maria Concepción are free to practice their religion or belief without ever suffering such cruelty again.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley