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Chiapas, Mexico Offers Ancient, Modern Religion Mix

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 Chiapas, Mexico has a vibrant religious scene.  The country is predominantly Catholic.  However, other faiths abound, ranging from ancient Mayan rituals to modern-day Evangelicals.  Many indigenous people mix Christianity with Indian beliefs.  A hybrid form of religious practice is dramatically observed among indigenous people in San Juan Chamula, an isolated settlement in the highlands of Chiapas. 

This rousing street-side service is taking place next to San Cristobal's most important sacral building, the church of Santo Domingo.  The contrast could not be starker.  The 16th Century church of Santo Domingo is one of the most remarkable examples of Baroque architecture in the Western hemisphere.  It is the embodiment of traditional, conservative Catholicism.

"The Catholic Church always prayed in the dark, inside the church and silently.  You know, it is a conversation between you and your God," journalist Kyra Nunez said.

She explains that the Catholic Church increasingly has to compete with new forms of worship springing up to attract members to the faith. 

"And, one of the forms of attracting people is music," she explained.  "So, the prayer, the normal prayer - Hail Mary or whatever - they do it singing, and dancing and expressing themselves and…apparently getting into the mood of the people."

Religious tensions can be intense

Tensions between the increasingly popular Evangelical Protestant movement and Catholic churches are strong, at times.   This phenomenon has been particularly acute in San Juan Chamula, a small indigenous town outside San Cristobal.  The town was at the center of the 1994 Zapatista uprising, which campaigned for the rights of indigenous people. 

Social and religious warfare between Indian converts to Evangelical Protestant religions and adherents of a traditional Indian form of Roman Catholicism hit a high point in the 1990's.  Scores of people were injured during open clashes between the groups.

The municipal president of San Juan Chamula, Domingo Lopez Gonzalez, oversees 148 communities within the area.  He tells VOA religious problems between Evangelicals and Catholics persist in a number of the small communities.  But, he says San Juan Chamula, itself, has no problems because people are allowed to worship as they wish. 

Gonzalez and two other political leaders enter the Church of Saint John the Baptist, which dominates the Central Plaza. 

The men, who are wearing heavy white sheepskin ponchos, stand at the back of the church and chant a prayer in Tzotzil, one of seven Mayan languages spoken in Chiapas.  The chant is hypnotic in its repetitive insistence.  The dimly lit church is illuminated by hundreds of candles.  The thick, sweet smell of incense wafts upwards from burning cups.

Groups of people form small circles.  Some kneel before floral offerings.  Some pray and sing in a strange fusion of ancient Mayan tradition and Catholic practice.  Some swig moonshine.  Others imbibe from large bottles of Coca Cola because belching is believed to expel evil spirits.

Many people hold small animals.  The disquieting sound of periodic screeches from chickens, ready for slaughter, punctuates the air.

Catholicism mixes with ancient Mayan religion

San Cristobal Tourist Officer Citalli Bendana Castilla says the church is the only one in Mexico that practices this peculiar blend of Catholicism and ancient Mayan religion.  She says people pray and sacrifice animals to the saints to provide them with good health or to ward off the evil eye and bad spells.

"They believe that if they kill the animal, they can be helped," Castilla explained.

REPORTER: "Do they kill the animal here?"
CASTILLA: "Sure, sure. They kill it here."
REPORTER: What sort of animals are sacrificed?"
CASTILLA: Normally, the dog, chicken, dogs and cats. The white chicken or black chicken. It depends on the problem."

The Spanish conquered the region in the 16th Century.  The invaders brought their Catholic religion to the native people.  Although the Mayans accepted the new European faith, they infused it with symbols of their own ancient beliefs. 

The Mayans found it easy to adopt the cross.  They note that, before the conquest and before Christ, the cross was symbolic of the ceiba tree, which the ancient Maya believed stood at the center of the universe.

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