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Mexico: Trip Report

 

July 1 - July 5, 1995 

The Report is in six parts: 1) summary overview of the visit; 2) the peace process in Chiapas; 3) the particular case of Fr. Loren Riebe; 4) discussions with the General Secretary of the Mexican Episcopal Conference; 5) discussions with the Social Pastoral Committee; and 6) follow-up.  

1. Overview of Trip

Following the Zapatista armed uprising on January 1, 1994 and the heightened attention on the role of the church in the Mexican crisis, the Committee on International Policy considered the usefulness of a brief visit to the region. The purpose would be to acquaint ourselves with the present realities there, express such support and solidarity with the local church as may be appropriate, and explore possible future actions. 

We consulted with both the Episcopal Conference in Mexico (CEM) and Bishop Samuel Ruíz García of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas; the CEM expressed complete openness to the visit, offering to provide any needed assistance, and Bishop Ruíz was most enthusiastic in welcoming such a delegation. 

The delegation consisted of Bishop Ricardo Ramírez, C.S.B. of Las Cruces, accompanied by Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J. and Mr. Thomas Quigley.

Saturday, July 1
The group flew to Tuxtla Gutiérrez via Mexico City, were then driven to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, arriving in the early evening. We had a brief meeting with the bishop and the vicar general, and reviewed the schedule.

Sunday, July 2
Leaving at 7:30 for a two and a half hour drive through Bachajón and Chilón to Yajalón, the parish of the just-expelled U.S. priest, Fr. Loren Riebe, we joined the several thousand people who came on pilgrimage to the parish church of Santiago Apóstol for the outdoor Mass, praying for the return of the expelled priests and calling for an end to the persecution of the church. 

We returned to San Cristóbal in time for Bishop Ramírez to concelebrate the 8:00 p.m. Mass at the Cathedral, followed by a well attended press conference at which the members of CONAI--the National Mediation Commission of which Bishop Ruíz is the president--presented a statement concerning the next round of talks between the government and the EZLN, scheduled to begin July 4.

Monday, July 3
Several meetings with representatives of CONAI and the diocesan human rights commission, "Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas." Drive to Tuxtla for the morning flight to Mexico City.

Tuesday, July 4
Met at the airport by Fr. Arnulfo Hernández, secretary of the bishops' committee for social pastoral (CEPS) and Mr. Rigoberto Cardona, CEPS administrator, we went directly to the secretariat of the CEM for arranged meeting with Bishop Ramón Godínez Flores, CEM general secretary, and his associate secretary, Fr. Luis Guillermo Herrera. 

Following two hours of meetings and lunch at the secretariat, we checked into our hotel (Maria Eugenia) and then went to the offices of CEPS for a meeting with their dozen-member board. Later, at the hotel, we met with Mr. Bruce Beardsley, minister counselor of the U.S. embassy, to discuss the Fr. Riebe matter. 

2. Chiapas Peace Process

The Zapatista insurrection of January 1, 1994, the date of the implementation of NAFTA, remains the focal point of an unprecendented series of scandals and tragedies (including the assasinations of Cardinal Posadas of Guadalajara and president-nominee Colosio) that have sent shock waves throughout the world. Central to the process of peace talks between the Zapatista rebels and the Mexican government are two mediating bodies, the government appointed COMCOPA (Commision for Concord and Peacemaking) formed by President Zedillo and legislators representating the three main political parties, and CONAI--the National Mediation Commission, composed of prominent citizens without ties to any political party and acceptable to both the government and the EZLN. Bishop Ruíz heads CONAI and has arguably played the essential role in keeping the negotiations moving forward. CONAI and the bishop have been critical of both the EZLN and the government in their threats to resume military operations and their seeming intransigence and delaying tactics. 

The bishops' conference established an "Episcopal Commission for Peace in Chiapas" in January of 1994, composed of seven bishops, including the CEM president, which has made several three-day visits to the region. While not directly involved in the mediation process, the commission has been a voice for moderation and for a political resolution of the crisis. (While we were there, the CEM commission was invited to meet with the EZLN leadership, which they did two weeks later.) The fourth in an on-going series of meetings between government and EZLN representatives was to take place just after we left. Subsequent reports indicate that, while little progress was recorded, both sides seem commited to continue the meetings.

3. The Loren Riebe Case 

Fr. Loren Riebe Estrella was a priest of the Los Angeles Archdiocese who worked as a missionary in the San Cristóbal diocese for five years before asking for incardination in that diocese some fifteen years ago. By all accounts, his pastoral ministry among the Tzeltal-speaking inhabitants of Yajalón these twenty years has been exemplary. Because of his ties with people in California, he was able to fund needed improvements in the lives of the people and provide scholarships for many to continue their education or professional training. 

On June 22 of this year, he was suddenly and forcibly arrested and expelled from the country, together with a Spanish and an Argentine priest, pastors in neighboring parishes. This unexpected turn of events gave an additional focus to our visit. We had been in touch with the State Department and U.S. Embassy before leaving for Mexico, and met with the Minister Counselor, Bruce Beardsley, while there. Mr. Beardsley subsequently provided us with the written charges against Fr. Riebe, which were sent on to Fr. Riebe who has prepared a thorough and convincing response. On advice from the Embassy and State Department, we communicated our concerns to the Mexican ambassador to Washington and requested a meeting with him. At this writing, the meeting is still pending.

4. Meetings with Mexican Episcopal Conference

The secretariat is located in a building near the Basilica which houses principally several missionary programs, both pontifical and national. The various standing committees--there are some 23--are spread out in different parts of the city; only Bishop Godínez and his immediate staff are located at the secretariat. The CEM is presently undergoing a process of re-organization, one purpose of which is to reduce the number of standing committees. 

  • a. The first discussion item was the situation in Chiapas and the expulsion of the three priests. Bishop Godínez had no opinion as to the justice of the expulsions, although he noted they had been carried out in an inhumane and illegal manner; any protest, however, would have to come from the diocese affected, not from the CEM itself. In general, he observed, in the Mexican culture it is usually more effective to try to work out such matters through personal contact rather than by public statements.

  • b. The bishop presented two major concerns for our consideration: Mexico's external debt and the "anti-natalist campaign," both seen as related to policies of the U.S. government. The CEM had recently issued statements on each: "Moral Reflections on the Debt" and "The Demographic Problem of Mexico," which they presented to us. It was agreed that we would try to assure an on-going exchange of relevant documents from each Conference. 

  • c. There was discussion as well of the migration problem, especially the growing hostility in the U.S. to undocumented persons from Mexico. Some six million people are unemployed and many can think only of heading north.

5. Meeting with the Bishops' Committee for Social Pastoral (CEPS)

The meeting with the CEPS committee began with descriptions of the scope and activities of these two episcopal entities dealing with social policy issues, CEPS and SDWP. We also reviewed the recent efforts to strengthen cooperation between our two Conferences, citing particularly the difficulties encountered in trying to come to a joint statement on NAFTA. CEPS is eager to further develop the relationship we already have, possibly "formalizing" it in some manner. 

National Caritas, which is part of CEPS, is represented in 42 of the country's 80 dioceses, and provides direct medical and food aid to the neediest areas. CEPS has produced a "map of poverty," diocese by diocese. Despite Mexico's overall relatively high GDP, many parts of the country are poorer than Bangladesh. 

CEPS is currently leading a process of reflection among groups throughout the country, focusing on the contribution of Catholic social teaching to the solution of the nation's current crises. This will culminate in a National Catholic Congress in October, the theme of which is: "Ante la Crisis, Esperanza y Acción." 

Specific issues raised as priority matters for mutual discussion include:  

the role of the Church in promoting greater social justice and openness in the process of democratization   

  • migration problems  
  • promotion of social concerns within the media  
  • the disruptive effects of certain fundamentalist religious groups
  • the need for financial and material assistance for those dioceses in greatest need.

6. Follow-up

It was agreed that both CEPS and SDWP would try to regularize the presently intermittent exchange of relevant documents issued by each conference. A number of representative documents have already been sent, including the most recent, Sowing the Weapons of War, One Family Under God, and Archbishop Jorge Mejía's address to our social action directors Spring 1995 meeting, Dimensions of the Bishop's Essential Ministry to Peace. We will send, when available, the final report of the African Bishops' Colloquium on Peacemaking. 

In an effort to strengthen the relationship through person-to-person contact, it was proposed that CIP invite Bishop Jacinto Guerrero, president of CEPS, to the January 1996 meeting of our committee, suggesting he address the committee on Mexico's economic crisis. In turn, CEPS has invited members of our committee and staff to attend the October National Catholic Congress in Monterrey. 

It was agreed that we would seek to represent the concerns of the Mexican bishops before our own government, where appropriate. As an instance of this, Fr. Christiansen will take up with Vice President Gore the expressed concern of CEM that the U.S. government exerts pressure on the Mexican in matters of population control. 



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