Islam taking root in southern Mexico

Islam taking root in southern Mexico


Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- In recent years,

Agustin Gomez Mendez and other Maya Indians in far

southern Mexico have taken yet one more sharp turn in

a long quest for redemption, deciding that Jesus

Christ isn't their personal savior after all.

"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his

messenger," says Gomez Mendez, a poor farmer and

father of six who converted his family to Islam in

1996 under the tutelage of Spanish missionaries.

Over the past few years, about 300 evangelical

Christian Maya have converted to Islam in southernmost

Chiapas state, which has been riven by spiritual

struggles for centuries.

The conversions have left the Muslim Maya's neighbors

and academics mystified. But their missionary guides

hope the new Muslims will prove the first in a wave of

converts in Mexico.

The missionaries themselves are but the latest in a

long line of religious teachers who have tried to mold

the Maya soul. Dominican monks arrived in these chilly

highlands with Spanish conquerors nearly 500 years

ago. They were followed by Presbyterians,

Pentecostals, evangelical preachers, left-wing Roman

Catholic priests and Mormons.

But the Islamic Spaniards are the first of their kind


And they have forged a small but devoted following

among the Maya.

"I was looking for God," says Gomez Mendez, "I made

the decision to become a slave of God."

A missionary leader, Esteban Lopez, 52, says the Maya

of Chiapas had been abandoned by Mexican society and

are ripe for the Islamic group's message of another


"They have lost their culture, everything," he says.

"Islam allows them to return to their roots."

Most of the new Muslims once belonged to Chiapas'

vibrant community of evangelical Christian Maya, which

has been gaining thousands of converts since the first

U.S. missionaries arrived 45 years ago.

The evangelicals rejected the traditional faith of

their home communities, which mixes ancient Maya

beliefs with 16th-century Roman Catholic tenets.

They refused to participate in or pay for festivals

they considered pagan. They also gave up the heavy

alcohol intake that often defines village life.

The evangelicals' defiance of the status quo and a

critical shortage of farmland led to their expulsion

in recent decades from San Juan Chamula, a

tradition-bound cluster of villages a few miles north

of San Cristobal.

Since the early 1970s, Gomez Mendez and thousands of

evangelicals have crowded onto the steep mountain

slopes on San Cristobal's north side. Competition for

the faithful has long been fierce among the dozens of

churches that dot the neighborhoods. And many Chamulan

evangelicals have switched congregations frequently,

going where the message is stronger and benefits

better, experts say.

"They change religions like they change socks," says

Abdias Tovilla, a non-Indian who heads a coalition of

Protestant churches in San Cristobal. "As long as a

church is helping them, they are happy."

But Tovilla and other experts say some Maya

evangelicals, though fervently religious, never fully

embraced their new faith. Shorn from the centuries-old

traditions of their community, they keep searching for

a path to God.

Lorenzo Gomez, 67, was among the spiritual wanderers.

"I didn't feel secure in the religion," says the

convert now known by his Muslim name, Muhammed Ali. "I

have always had in my mind that I am not good, not

safe. I should know more about what is in the world,

how to be right with our lord."

The Spanish Islamic missionaries arrived in 1995, amid

turmoil caused by rebellion a year earlier by the

mostly Maya Zapatista National Liberation Army.

Starting slowly, the Spaniards began speaking about

Islam to any Maya who would listen and wooing

evangelical leaders.

In 1996, the Muslims offered to help the evangelicals

establish a new market in San Cristobal, attracting

many to the planning meetings.

Among those attending was Agustin Gomez Mendez, who

then belonged to a Church of God congregation. Many

people left when the talk at the meetings turned to

Islam, but he stayed.

"I went to listen about the market but started to

listen to the message," he says.

Like other Muslim converts here, Gomez Mendez says he

was largely untroubled by abandoning the central

article of Christian faith: that Jesus Christ is the

son of God.

"I realized that God is only he who created

everything," he says. "The creator cannot have

children. Jesus wasn't God. He was a prophet."

The 300 Muslims in Chiapas join several hundred others

sprinkled throughout this largely Catholic nation of

100 million, according to Omar Weston,

director-general of the Muslim Center in Mexico City.

That number pales in comparison to the estimated 1

million in Brazil and 300,000 in Argentina.

Today, the Chiapas Muslims are headquartered in a

handful of houses and low-slung buildings along a

two-lane beltway that skirts San Cristobal, a colonial

city of 100,000.

Partly with financing from abroad, the Chiapas Muslims

began creating businesses to employ the new faithful.

The four dozen children at their madrassa, or school,

spend 90 minutes a day studying the Quran and Islamic

teachings in Arabic, says Lopez, the missionary.

Classes also include mathematics, geography, Spanish

and other lessons. But the greater mission, Lopez

says, is to forge a pure Islamic society.

Lopez and the other Spaniards are members of the

Murabitun, a largely European group of converts to the

mystical Sufi strain of Islam. The group hopes to

return to the fundamental Islam lived by the prophet

Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic religion, and his

early followers.

"We are going to the origins of when Islam first came

to earth," Lopez says, "trying to purify it. There

isn't a pure Islamic government in the world. That's

what we hope to create. An authentic answer."

The group's spiritual leader, Shaykh Abdalqadir

as-Sufi, a Scotsman, has sharply condemned democracy

and global capitalism. But he also recently spoke out

against the terrorism of Sept. 11, arguing that the

terrorists' real aim was to discredit and destroy


Active in South Africa, Chechnya, England, Spain and

elsewhere, the Murabitun have been accused of being

anti-Semitic. They have also been dismissed by many

mainstream Muslims as a quasi-Islamic cult.

Arriving as they have on the heels of the Zapatistas'

uprising, the Muslims have spurred unease, if not

outright hostility, among many in Chiapas. State and

federal officials have investigated the group's

finances and motives. Coverage in the local press has

been largely negative.

Many academics who study the Maya view the group with

a blend of suspicion and bemusement. Most Christians

hold them at arms length.

In fact, some who originally flocked to the

Spanish-led Muslims abandoned them with equal fervor.

"I did it for just a while," says Mateo Gomez Collazo,

42, who briefly sojourned with the Muslims four years

ago. "It's difficult to leave my Christ behind."

But while they've deserted the Murabitun, the

dissidents seem resolute in their new faith.

Agustin Gomez Mendez and a handful of neighbors have

built their own Islamic center a few miles from the

main Muslim compound.

Gomez Mendez prays toward Mecca five times a day. The

Quran, in Spanish and Arabic, anchors Islamic texts on

a small bookshelf in his house.

He intends to teach his children, who go by Arabic

names, to live in submission to Allah.

"I am happy being Muslim," he says.


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