Religion, Tradition, and Persecution: The Plight of Christians in Mexico
By Linda Burkle, PhD
Mexico is a large diverse country which has been adversely impacted by generations of crime cartels, governmental corruption, poverty, and inadequate basic infrastructure. As a newly industrialized nation with the fourteenth largest economy, it is considered an emerging power. It is an active member of the G20, UN, and other global organizations. Even though Mexico is wrought with gross human rights abuses, it was elected in June 2020 as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Additionally, in October 2020, Mexico was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council. 
In recent years, the U.S. has poured millions to dollars into Mexico to assist in combating organized crime and drug trafficking. Although reforms were enacted by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December 2018, they have thus far been ineffective in curtailing torture and killings; impunity remains the norm.
Journalists and human rights defenders are often targeted. According to Human Rights Watch, “Mexico is…one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders. In 2019, the Mexico Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 20 human rights defenders killed in Mexico. As with journalists, violence against human rights defenders is rarely investigated or prosecuted.” 
These human rights abuses have overshadowed the ongoing religious persecution of Christians. Mexico is once again on the 2021 Open Doors World Watch List, ranking 37th of the worst 50 countries in regards to persecution. This ranking is attributed to organized crime and corruption as well as local community compulsory religious practices. Both factors were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and related access to medical care.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has also placed Mexico on its “monitoring list” for “moderate to severe” persecution in the southern region.
Persecution has a variety of sources and forms in Mexico. Drug cartels may target Christians because they do not approve of drug use nor participate in illegal activities and are averse to bribes. Persecution is most prevalent in the mountainous regions of the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Yucatan. The indigenous people who populate these rural areas practice a syncretic religion that mixes Catholicism with pre-Hispanic Mayan beliefs. Communal life is centered around various religious holidays which promote drunkenness. All community members are expected to contribute to these events both with money and service. However, Evangelical Protestants who cannot afford to contribute or do not wish to participate in community religious holidays are intensely pressured to do so, first with fines or jail time. If they still refuse, they are denied basic services such as water and education that are guaranteed in Article 4 of the Constitution. Their churches and homes are burned, their belongings are confiscated, and they are forced to leave the community.  For example, in April 2019, a Mexican publication Somoselmedio reported “that over 700 people from 115 indigenous families had been expelled from nine different communities for failing to participate in local Catholic festivals.” 
Expulsion from the community in this way is a common practice. Although the Constitution of Mexico guarantees “all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship,” the government seldom intervenes.  According to a report from Baptist Press, “[t]he government also has an unhelpful practice of granting persecuted people land outside their community for resettlement; [an analyst from Christian Solidarity Worldwide explained] this is tantamount to saying to victims, ‘We’ll relocate you rather than deal with the root issue.’ The roots of the inaction lie in a culture holding that the majority has the ‘right’ to decide the faith of the entire community.” 
Local political authorities, or caciques, use Mexico’s “Law of Uses and Customs”, which gives significant autonomy to indigenous communities, to force evangelical participation and keep state government from interfering with local customs. This practice is in violation of constitutionally guaranteed religious rights. Often, politics and government are closely aligned with the religious majority; approximately 83 percent of Mexicans identify as Catholic. As a result, local officers support the Catholic majority, which holds the power to vote them out of office if they do not.  According to a report from Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, “[t]he Catholic Church in Mexico has historically been one of the most powerful and politically conservative institutions in Latin America. Deeply embedded in Mexican society and culture, the Church fiercely defended its effective monopoly over religious practice—particularly as a bulwark against Yankee Protestantism.”  However, Mexico is also becoming increasingly secularized and Christianity has lost its influence in the public square. The impact of this shift is still uncertain.
I recently spoke with a Mexican evangelical pastor, whom I will refer to as Manuel. He has experienced extreme persecution while living and ministering in the mountainous communities. He described being jailed for not wanting to contribute to the religious festivals and participate in them. He stood his ground and as a result, his water services were cut off. Finally, Manuel’s home and church were burned, and all his belongings confiscated. He was forced to leave the area and relocate without any money or livelihood. Manuel stated that such treatment is allowed by local officials because they are supported by those of the majority religion. Despite the conditions, Manuel stated that people are coming to the Lord to meet their spiritual needs not satisfied in the traditional religion. Nevertheless, they also need to have their physical and material needs met. Manuel stated that both Biblical knowledge and general education are key to address widespread poverty. When I asked him if he saw any solutions to the persecution, he responded that if pastors and church leaders come together as one voice, they could affect change, much like a labor union. Even though the situation is dire, Manuel has hope.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.