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Mexico's Maya Heartland a Home to Country's Muslim Community


Muslims from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group take part in Friday (Jummah) prayers, while wearing hijabs made from traditional Maya shawls, inside Ahmadiyya Muslim Community mosque in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 11, 2017.

A vibrant Muslim community exists in the indigenous Maya heartland of Mexico, a predominantly Roman Catholic country.

In the southern state of Chiapas, home to a lush mountainous landscape, a Reuters journalist took pictures of members of the small Muslim community, made up of hundreds of mostly Tzotzil men and women, many of whom converted to Islam from Christian denominations.

Karima Gomez, 66, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, cooks tortillas inside her house in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 12, 2017.
Karima Gomez, 66, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, cooks tortillas inside her house in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 12, 2017.

The Muslim men here are distinguished by their prayer caps, or kufis, and the women by their hijabs, which take the form of traditional Maya shawls.

Anisa, 20, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, poses dressed in a hijab made from a traditional Maya shawl, in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 12, 2017.
Anisa, 20, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, poses dressed in a hijab made from a traditional Maya shawl, in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 12, 2017.

Locals say the conversions to Islam here began in the late 1980s, around the same time Mexico's Zapatista movement was gaining traction in Chiapas, as institutions including Christianity and capitalism came under increasing criticism.

Evangelical worshippers and Muslims from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group take part in a meeting between members of both religions at an evangelical church in San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 14, 2017.
Evangelical worshippers and Muslims from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group take part in a meeting between members of both religions at an evangelical church in San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 14, 2017.

According to the last census, 83 percent of Mexicans are Catholic. Although Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Mexico's 120 million population, a disproportionate number are clustered in and around San Cristobal de las Casas, a highland city in Chiapas that mixes Maya and Spanish identity.

Mustafa, 42, a carpenter and Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, checks a piece of wood at work in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 11, 2017.
Mustafa, 42, a carpenter and Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, checks a piece of wood at work in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 11, 2017.

"People gave us a weird look when we converted. They thought we were terrorists and were scared of us," said Mustafa, a member of the nearby Ahmadia community. "But with the passage of time and our own actions, that opinion has changed."

Umar, 64, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, speaks with evangelical worshippers in a meeting between members of both religions at an evangelical church in San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 14, 2017.
Umar, 64, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, speaks with evangelical worshippers in a meeting between members of both religions at an evangelical church in San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 14, 2017.

Umar, an indigenous former evangelical pastor, converted to Islam in the late 1990s and now serves as a bridge between local Christians and Muslims.

"Ours is a monotheistic religion," he said. "But we don't worship saints."

Mohamed Amin, 55, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, washes his face before praying in the backyard of his house in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 15, 2017.
Mohamed Amin, 55, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, washes his face before praying in the backyard of his house in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 15, 2017.

Resident Mohamed Amin, 55, explained the main reason behind his conversion to Islam.

Soraya, 25, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, works at the craft store in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 11, 2017.
Soraya, 25, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, works at the craft store in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas state, Mexico, Aug. 11, 2017.

"I like to be clean and change my clothes," he said. "This is a clean religion, and that's what originally drew me to it."

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