Islam is winning converts among the indigenous people of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where Christianity has been the principal spiritual belief and where religious differences are a growing source of conflict.
The newly converted Muslims, 15 of whom have already made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, said they chose Islam out of conviction, but also because they were fed up with the often bloody clashes between Roman Catholics and Christians of other persuasions, who also tend to be divided along political lines in Chiapas.
“The indigenous world has a very natural relationship with the cosmos, which makes it easy for Indians to understand what Islam is about,” said Aurelio Pérez, the president of the Da’wa mission in Mexico, and a holy man, or imam, of the Islamic Community of Mexico.
There are no precise statistics on the number of Muslims in Chiapas, but local Islamic leaders say the converts number in the hundreds.
Fifteen Indians made the first pilgrimage from Chiapas to Mecca in November with the financial support of Muslim communities abroad, said Imam Pérez.
Chiapas is one of the poorest areas of Mexico. More than one-third of the state’s 3.5 million people are Mayan Indians, many of whom live in the most abject poverty.
Due to religious differences, people in Chiapas have been forced to leave their communities, deprived of their homes and possessions, persecuted, thrown into prison and even killed, said Bishop Felipe Arizmendi of the diocese of San Crist-bal de las Casas in Chiapas.
Chiapas is the site of the majority, and the worst, of the 20 or so religious conflicts simmering throughout Mexico, according to the under-secretariat of Population, Migration Services and Religious Affairs.
“We no longer fear anything, now Allah protects us,” one indigenous man, Mariano Hernández, told the local press in Chiapas.
Mr. Hernández, who changed his name to Mamad when he converted to Islam, lives in the Muslim community of La Esperanza along with several of his old fellow residents of San Juan Chamula, a town where “traditionalist Catholics” have expelled 30,000 indigenous people over the past 20 years for professing other faiths.
The government of Vicente Fox describes Chiapas as an area at high risk of religious conflicts, because Catholics, Protestants of various persuasions, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Muslims live side by side, not always peacefully.
Many inhabitants of the rural areas of Chiapas equate being Catholic with being a Marxist sympathizer of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), and see membership in any other faith as equivalent to being a member of a paramilitary group or a supporter of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000.
Such sentiments explain many of the conflicts in Chiapas, said Mart’n Peralta, a sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
But he explained that the phenomenon is even more complex, as the disputes are inextricably linked to the poverty, marginalization and neglect by the state suffered by indigenous people in Mexico, and the intolerance of religious leaders.
It was in Chiapas that the EZLN made its first public appearance in January 1994, following its charismatic masked leader Subcomandante Marcos to demand justice and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.
Several of the founders of the armed group-which has not engaged in fighting with the army since the second week of 1994-emerged from the evangelization process led by then-bishop Samuel Ruiz, a proponent of Liberation Theology, a progressive current in the Roman Catholic Church.
Mr. Ruiz, labeled the “red bishop” by his detractors, was succeeded by Bishop Arizmendi in 2000.
While more than 90 percent of Mexico’s 100 million people are Roman Catholics, that proportion stands at just 62 percent in Chiapas, according to a study by the National Institute of Geographic Statistics and Informatics.
In addition, 12.6 percent of those surveyed by the Institute of Statistics in Chiapas said they professed no faith, nearly four times the nationwide proportion of 3.4 percent.
To put an end to the conflicts caused by religious differences, the people of Chiapas “must love each other as brothers and sisters, following the biblical precept of loving others even if they belong to different religions or are enemies,” said Bishop Arizmendi.
Since January, the bishop has been calling on religious leaders in the state to meet in the Inter-Religious Council of Chiapas, which has not met again since its creation in 1998.
“Not only is it will that is lacking to eliminate religious tension in Chiapas, but what is needed here is justice and respect and guarantees for indigenous cultures,” said Mr. Peralta.