Who do you trust to look after your community? According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, 71% of Mexican citizens would rather put their trust in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) than the government, which has the confidence of a mere 24% of the population.
These stark statistics beg the question: what could be driving such levels of distrust in the Mexican government?
Currently, Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a Catholic priest. Other religious leaders are also increasingly targeted; between November 2013 and April 2018, 30 religious leaders were killed. In April 2018 alone, three religious leaders were killed. Moreover, Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist.
Religious leaders often take on the role of human rights defenders (HRDs), engaging with various human rights initiatives in order to bring the issues of their respective communities to the attention of those who can provide legal, practical or advocacy assistance. As such, these religious leaders often fulfil the role of community leaders as well as HRDs. It’s dangerous work. In 2017, 32 HRDs were killed according to a report by Front Line Defenders.
Chiapas, Oaxaca and Hidalgo are all home to some of the largest and most varied indigenous populations in Mexico. Unfortunately, this diversity sometimes provokes division, and the three states have some of the highest numbers of documented violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the country, with the number of documented cases highest in Chiapas.
In Mexico, state and federal governments have a designated office to deal with religious affairs, a responsibility to address violations of religious freedom and to actively mediate a solution to religious conflicts. However, the officials are almost always distinctly under-resourced and lack training in human rights – especially religious freedom.
At best, state and municipal governments are unable or unwilling to protect the religious freedom of their citizens and to address these human rights violations. At worst, they are passively or actively complicit in the violations. A particularly concerning way FoRB is violated in these states is through the cutting off of basic services, like water and electricity, to Protestant families by the local authorities – as is often the case, the violation of one right leads to others
One of the most striking aspects of the cases Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has profiled in its latest report is the lack of official intervention to resolve them – apart from a few exceptions, for most of the people affected, little has changed.
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.
Casto Hernández Hernández (right) with his pastor
Casto Hernández Hernández and his cousin Juan Placido Hernández Hernández were first imprisoned and then forcibly displaced in March 2015 after they refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs. Despite the open admission by a village leader in early court hearings that he had attempted to force the men to change their religious beliefs, the case dragged on for almost eleven months, with the Public Ministry repeatedly cancelling or postponing hearings [See more].
Agreement on religious freedom allows the men to return home
On 2 February, the Public Ministry in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, reached a decision and put in place an agreement between Casto Hernández and Juan Placido Hernández and authorities from the village of Chichiltepec.
The agreement – drafted by the lawyers affiliated with CSW’s Mexican partner Impulso 18 and endorsed by the Public Ministry – guarantees total freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the village of Chichiltepec and Casto and Juan Placido’s right to return, with their full religious rights recognised.
According to the director of Impulso 18, Jorge Lee, the village authorities came to the meeting prepared to fight. When they realized they were ‘one step away from going to jail’, however, they changed their position, signed agreement and promised to uphold religious freedom in Chichiltepec.
While none of the village authorities spent any time in prison despite their criminal actions, we, and most importantly Casto and Juan Placido, feel that this agreed outcome is the right course of action.
It establishes their constitutional rights in a very clear way but also allows them to re-join their community in as harmoniously a way as possible. The concern was that if the authorities were thrown in prison, the levels of hostility would be so high, and the rupture in the indigenous community network so profound that it would be impossible for the two men to ever return home.
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’.