Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, Defender of Mexico’s Mayans, Dies at 86

By JULIA PRESTON, NEW YORK TIMES, 26 January 2010

Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, an impassioned defender of the Mayans in southern Mexico and a mediator in peace talks between Indian rebels and the government, died on Monday in Mexico City. He was 86.

The cause was respiratory failure and complications of high blood pressure and diabetes, said Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop Ruiz’s successor.

During his 40 years of presiding over a Roman Catholic diocese in Chiapas State, Bishop Ruiz cast light on abuses suffered by the Indians and sought to bring them into the church as equals with other Mexicans, challenging the rigidly stratified social order.

His advocacy and egalitarian views, which were tinged with socialism, brought him into conflict with the Mexican government, which accused him of formenting a violent uprising in Chiapas in 1994. He also rankled the Vatican, which said he had strayed from ecclesiastical principles to create a politicized ethnic church, and in 1993 publicly invited him to step down. Mexican clerics rallied to his defense, however, and he remained as bishop until he retired in 2000.

Bishop Ruiz attracted a fervent following among Indians in Chiapas, who called him “Tatic,” which means “father” in a Mayan language. On Tuesday, Indian parishioners filled the cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial town in the Chiapas highlands, for a memorial Mass that also commemorated the 51st anniversary of Bishop Ruiz’s ordination there.

Samuel Ruiz was born on Nov. 3, 1924, in Irapuato, in Guanajuato State in central Mexico, the conservative Catholic heart of the country. He is survived by a brother, José Ruiz García.

The federal government waged bloody anticlerical battles against Catholics as he was growing up. When he arrived in Chiapas in 1960, his beliefs were staunchly traditional.

But Bishop Ruiz was influenced by the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s called for bringing the Catholic
faith to people in a way that reflected their own cultures.

“He became a representative of the poor and aggrieved in his diocese and also a protector of priests and nuns and lay brothers and sisters who were working with the poor,” said John Womack, a professor emeritus of Mexican history at Harvard. “He wasn’t a theologian. He was a doer and a practitioner.”

Starting in 1970, Bishop Ruiz ordered translations of the Bible and other religious texts in the indigenous languages of Chiapas. He trained Indian catechists, or instructors, to organize village assemblies throughout the mountains and jungles of the diocese. By the end of his tenure, there were more than 20,000 Indian catechists in Chiapas, said Pablo Romo, a former Dominican priest who worked with the bishop.

“He made the word of God accessible to the people,” Mr. Romo said.

San Cristóbal is named for Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican missionary from Spain who was one of the first bishops of Chiapas and an early protector of the Indians. Bishop Ruiz said he knew he was following that legacy.

As economic changes in the 1980s deepened the poverty and isolation of the Indians, many Catholics joined an uprising that erupted when the Zapatista National Liberation Army, a group of armed Indian rebels, occupied several Chiapas towns in January 1994.

Bishop Ruiz openly supported the Zapatistas’ goal of fighting injustice, but he did not endorse their violent tactics.

For four years, beginning in 1994, Bishop Ruiz mediated peace talks between the government and the Zapatistas. Accords were signed in February 1995 in the Chiapas village of San Andrés Larráinzar.

But he clashed during the talks with President Ernesto Zedillo, who accused him of favoring the rebels and preaching a “theology of violence.”

Bishop Ruiz’s Zapatista sympathies also earned him enemies among the landed class in Chiapas and the Indians who opposed the rebels. In November 1997, he was ambushed by gunmen on a mountain road but escaped without injury.

Obeying Vatican rules, Bishop Ruiz retired, reluctantly, when he turned 75. In 2002, the Vatican ordered a halt to a program he had initiated that had ordained more than 300 married Indian deacons.

“In the last decades,” Mr. Womack said, “he was always and very bravely on the defensive within the church.”

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