Islam taking root in southern Mexico

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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 here. 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 path. “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 Islam. 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.

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

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