Islam has joined a battle for the hearts and minds of Mexico's volatile Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas state, home of Zapatista rebels and a hotbed of sectarian strife between Christians.

In an unlikely meeting of two worlds, an idealistic Muslim sect has converted some 300 Tzotzils, a Maya Indian group known for drink-fueled fiestas and religious fervor.

"It was difficult to learn the prayers in Arabic at first but now I have them in my heart," said Muhammad Emin Lopez, 46, a Tzotzil fruit merchant who boasts that his conversion to Islam in 1995 was the state's first.

He prays five times a day as required in Islam, has gone on the obligatory "haj" pilgrimage to Mecca and attends a small mosque in a cornfield on the outskirts of the hill town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Beside the mosque, a Tzotzil woman dressed in colorful Indian garb and known by the Muslim name Karima washes clothes in a stream near ramshackle wooden houses.

The growth of Islam in such a restive area has raised the eyebrows of Mexico's intelligence agency, wary of possible terrorist activity aimed at the neighboring United States.

But the Tzotzil Moslems have little interest in holy war, having seen religious and political conflict close up.

Many are former evangelical Protestants who were thrown out of a nearby town by fellow Tzotzils who practice a mixture of Catholicism and ancient Maya Indian rites in a conflict that began in the 1970s.

Some 30,000 Protestants have been forced from their homes and more than 100 have died in sectarian violence.

"People are full of darkness in Chiapas," said Lopez. "The Catholics and Protestants have fought each other a lot and the Zapatistas only want to know about war, not Islam," he said.

Several dozen Spanish missionaries who introduced Islam to Chiapas and still live here hold radical political and economic views such as wanting to do away with currencies, taxes and the nation state, but church leaders and academics say the group has no connection to violence.

The Spaniards, members of a group of mostly Western converts known as the Murabitun, failed in a bid to ally themselves with Zapatistas 10 years ago and have been relatively quiet since.

The missionaries, also active in the United States and Europe, suffered a blow when Lopez and some 80 other Tzotzils split from them several years ago in an argument over land and jobs and began worshiping on their own.

NEVER ASSIMILATED

Now numbering some 330,000, the Tzotzils in the mountains of Chiapas have never been fully assimilated into the Catholic, Hispanic world since Spain conquered Mexico in the 1500s.

Along with other poor Maya Indians, they form the backbone of the Zapatista guerrillas, who staged an uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and have now retired to bases in the jungle.

The Catholic Church has only a tenuous hold over the Tzotzils, some of whom sacrifice chickens in church and down moonshine known as "posh" during nominally Christian rites.

The Tzotzils, like many of Mexico's 12 million indigenous people, have a hunger of the spirit.

"They are people who become attached to religion no matter where it comes from. Islam presented itself just as any other option could have come along as well," said Felipe Arizmendi, Catholic bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Experts says the Maya have become adroit at adapting to different beliefs and allegiances as the outside world has encroached on their jungles and mountains.

"That's why they have survived so long. They've been able to be at the forefront of whatever proposal or political project that's been offered to them for 500 years," said anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho.

That said, surprised Zapatista rebel leaders turned down the Murabitun missionaries' invitation to convert to Islam during a meeting in Chiapas in February 1995.

"They had an initial contact with the Zapatista army and failed," said Morquecho, author of an academic paper on the Chiapas Moslems.

Since then, the Murabitun have kept a low profile in Chiapas, setting up a mosque, "madrassah" Islamic school and several small businesses.

Headscarved indigenous women bake and bearded Mexicans serve at a pizzeria in San Cristobal de las Casas owned by Murabitun members. Pepperoni pizzas are off the menu, likely due to the Islamic prohibition on eating pork.

Founded by a Scotsman who turned to Islam during a stay in Morocco in the 1960s, the Murabitun are from the orthodox Sunni branch of Islam but have incorporated some mystical Sufi practices.

They are highly critical of the charging of interest rates as un-Islamic and advocate scrapping currencies, taxes and the nation state, to be replaced with Islamic emirates trading in gold coins.

"Our model is not ideological or utopian but is based on the life of our Prophet Mohammad," reads a statement on the group's Mexican web site.

Source: http://www.wwrn.org/article.php?idd=10264&sec=33&con=6

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