Protestant families in Mexico denied water access, kids barred from school: NGO

Mexico flag
Mexico flag | Pixabay/RonnyK

Some Protestant minority families from indigenous communities in Mexico are being denied access to crucial utilities like water and electricity while some kids are denied access to school, a new report from an international Christian persecution watchdog warns. 

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which is active in over 20 countries, published its new report “A culture of impunity: religious discrimination in Mexico” on Monday. The report sheds light on the “common and widespread” occurrence of religious freedom violations in Mexico as well as increasing violence against religious leaders in the North American country. 

Specifically, the report draws attention to violations happening within indigenous religious minority communities in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Hidalgo and Oaxaca as “little has been done” to address the violence and violations.

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“No one should be at risk of losing their homes, livelihood or education on account of their religion or belief,” CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement. “We continue to call on the Mexican authorities to fulfill its obligations to uphold this vital right for all citizens, as guaranteed in its constitution.”

According to the report, CSW received reports of continued religious freedom violations throughout 2018 and 2019. In 2019, CSW received documentation on seven separate violations in Hidalgo, six in Chipas, two in Oaxaca and one in Guerrero.

“All of these cases were a result of the minority group’s conversion from and refusal to participate in activities, including festivals, associated with the majority religion,” the report explains. “The majority of these cases included either threats, illegal fines or arbitrary detention. The most common form of violation was the blocking of basic services such as water and electricity.”

According to CSW, two of the cases resulted in forced displacement while over 38 children in one community remain without access to schools “because of the religious beliefs of their parents.”

“Vulnerable communities continue to complain about high levels of impunity and the lack of protection granted by the state officials, who often side with those of the majority religion,” the report explains. “The lack of intervention by the state governments to protect [freedom of religion or belief] is a clear indication that they continue to view [these] violations as community issues or minor ‘problems’ rather than violations of fundamental human rights.”

According to the 2010 census, 83 percent of people in Mexico identify as Roman Catholic, while about 5 percent identify as evangelicals, 2 percent identify as Pentecostals, 1 percent identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses and 9 percent identify as members of other religious communities. 

CSW notes that despite the overtly Christian percentage of the population, Mexico has had a “complicated relationship with religion” as both Roman Catholics and Protestants have suffered throughout the country’s history. 

Although many citizens can participate in religious activities regularly without interference, “a significant percentage” face “moderate and severe” forms of persecution. The report cited a 2017 study finding that over 32 percent of women and 24 percent of men over the age of 18 suffer discrimination over religion or belief. 

“Religious discrimination is particularly prevalent in indigenous communities where some local authorities have sought to impose religious uniformity in their communities,” CSW details. “Religious discrimination has the potential to worsen in the face of government inaction.”

According to CSW, the Mexican government is “averse to involving itself in religious affairs” and tends to refrain from prosecuting those responsible for criminal attacks on religious freedom because of an “extremely strict interpretation of the concept of separation of church and state.”

There is a "significant overlap" between religions — especially between Roman Catholicism and pre-Columbian beliefs — that can lead to moderate religious freedom violations. 

Issues are made worse by the fact that Mexican law gives “significant autonomy” to indigenous communities to implement “their own social and cultural norms.”

“This law is meant to be exercised in line with human rights guarantees in the Mexican constitution, but in practice, this is not enforced,” the report states. “Many local leaders in communities functioning under the Law of Uses and Customs mandate community uniformity in terms of religious practice and belief, compelling all members of the community to participate in the religious activities of the majority or face punishment.”

Punishment ranges in severity but includes measures like illegal fines, cutting off access to utilities like water and electricity as well as “prohibiting religious minority children from attending school.”

“With the absence of government intervention and the culture of impunity, violations all too often escalate to the point of destruction of property, arbitrary detention, violence and forced displacement,” the report explains. 

Although schools are state institutions, the CSW report accuses school officials in some areas of collaborating with local government officials to block religious minority children from attending. 

“The state and federal governments rarely intervene to uphold [religious freedom] or protect the rights of these children," the report asserts. 

According to the report, Protestant families in the communities of Rancho Nuevo and Coamila in Hidalgo have been removed from the register of inhabitants. This led to families being denied education, healthcare and other government benefits. 

“In August 2018 in Rancho Nuevo and Coamila local authorities directed that the local school be closed to prevent 16 children, whose parents are Protestant Christians, from attending classes there,” the CSW report reads. “In April 2019, CSW received information that indicated that at least 38 children in the community remained without access to education. They remain without access to state education.”

Many of the cases of religious intolerance in these communities result in the forced displacement of individuals from their communities. 

“Most of these victims wait years for their cases to be resolved, if they ever are,” the report adds. “The act of displacement causes disruption to the children’s education.” 

According to CSW, all the state and federal governments have designated offices to deal with religious affairs and it is the responsibility of those offices to “actively mediate a solution to religious conflicts.”

But CSW stresses that there is “little political will to address these cases” in addition to the fact that officials are often “poorly resourced” and typically “lack expertise and training in human rights.” 

In addition to the escalation of religious violations in Mexico, the country’s murder rate hit a record high in 2019 as there was an increase in violence related to criminal enterprises. 

According to CSW, illegal groups often view churches as “an attractive target for extortion and fronts for money laundering.” 

Church leaders are often viewed as “threats” to the criminal groups since some groups have tried to incorporate “religious beliefs into their identity" and have "aggressively attempted to promote them.”

According to CSW, precise figures on how many religious leaders have been killed are difficult to obtain because witnesses fear retaliation for speaking out. The organization says that it received seven reports of religious leaders being murdered in 2019. 

Although not listed this year, Mexico has in the past been listed by Open Doors USA on its annual World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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