Since Mexican Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de las Casas decided to step down as mediator between the government and the Marxist guerrillas of the Zapatista front, Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, the of Tapachula, a diocese in the zone of conflict of Chiapas, has been playing an increasingly influential role in the region.

Among his fellow bishops, the young prelate is known as an intellectual with a great pastoral sense. He has published 13 books and has developed a successful pastoral plan for reaching his racially mixed population. Recently, Bishop Arizmendi spoke with Register correspondent Alejandro Bermudez.

Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel

Current Position: Bishop of Tapachula.

Personal: Born in Chiltepec just outside Mexico City; entered the Seminary of Toluca in 1952 and studied dogmatic theology and liturgy at the Pontifical Faculty of Salamanca, in Spain.

Background: Ordained in 1963 for the diocese of Toluca; became the first spiritual director of and later, professor at the local seminary; was vocations and seminaries advisor at the Mexican bishops’ conference.

1986-89: Headed the Organization of Latin American Seminaries (OSLAM),

1990: Chosen as peritus for the Synod of the Bishops at the Vatican.

1991: Appointed bishop of Tapachula, one of the three dioceses in the Southern state of Chiapas.

1994: Elected by the Mexican bishops as a member of the Commission for National Reconciliation — a Church organization that is now playing a leading role in trying to bring peace to the region.

Bermudez: Would you provide a brief overview of the situation in Chiapas?

Bishop Felipe Arizmendi: Chiapas is one of the poorest regions in Mexico. It has a large population of native ethnic groups that have been traditionally forgotten and exploited either by politicians or local landowners. Lately, this situation of misery has become the battlefield for two different social and political systems, two ideologies that are fighting against each other. Both of them talk about democracy and justice, but each of them has quite a different understanding of these terms. So on one side you have the government, which has its own reform program inspired by neoliberal principles, and on the other, you have the leaders of the EZLN who claim to defend the poor but actually have a revolutionary agenda not only for Chiapas, but for all Mexico. As you can imagine, these two perspectives are very hard to bring together at a negotiating table, to talk, and to reach an agreement.

How do you see the current state of the situation and the chances for a true dialogue?

We are extremely concerned since the situation is deteriorating inside Chiapas because of the increasing level of confrontation. The confrontation has now gone beyond the Zapatistas and the government. Today almost everybody is taking sides, thus creating divisions and conflicts that are pitting communities against communities, poor against poor, ethnic groups against one another, and even creating division within towns and families. As a consequence, the government can hardly act fairly, and each intervention from the authorities or the Zapatistas designed to apply justice turns into more injustice, repression, and violence.

That is why our present effort is aimed at getting both sides to sit down face-to-face to achieve a first agreement, which is to move the conflict out of the communities, the towns, and the different ethnic groups.

But originally didn't the Catholic Church in Mexico offer itself as a mediator? Why does it now prefer a direct dialogue between the government and the EZLN?

First, it was not the Catholic Church as such that played a mediating role, it was Bishop Samuel Ruiz. The bishops’ conference was confident of that mediation until Bishop Ruiz himself said that it was impossible to mediate. In fact, from one side, the government openly showed distrust toward Bishop Samuel, while the EZLN never responded to the bishop's calls.

Under those circumstances, what sense was there in continuing to mediate? So it was Bishop Samuel who personally decided to quit. We then said, if this is not working, let's try the other way, which is to promote direct conversations between the two sides.

The Mexican Congress has created a Commission for Conciliation and Peace, known as COCOPA. The Commission is now trying to talk to the EZLN and to persuade it to hold a direct conversation with the government. How do you see these efforts?

Our stand is simple. We believe that any consistent, seriously planned effort to bring peace to the region has to be supported. The COCOPA is trying to find the way to meet the Zapatistas and persuade them to talk to the government. The mere possibility of building such a bridge is worth a try. To be realistic, what we wish for and what it seems can actually be achieved could be two very different things… but hope is the last thing to lose.

How does the bishops'conference believe the dialogue should proceed?

We are certainly in favor of a direct dialogue as opposed to formal mediations. Of course, different organizations, including the Catholic Church, can work as “brokers,” or “deal makers,” that could help to bring sides to the table, but we don't think there has to be an organization in the middle. There are two sides here and neither can ignore the other. The Zapatistas are there with their weapons claiming grassroots support and the government is there with the support provided by the democratic vote cast in 1994 (the last Mexican presidential election). Both of them have to sit down and discuss, not ideological or abstract themes, but the concrete problematic issues.

The government cannot ignore the reality of the Zapatista presence, while the EZLN cannot claim to determine the future of the nation. Besides, both sides, who claim to represent the people, should in fact listen to the people and realize that they want peace. In this sense, we encourage any civil forum that can express the people's desires and expectations because they are of great help, not only by showing the people's will, but also by giving an opportunity to civil organizations to discuss and provide creative solutions.

What is the role the Catholic bishops are playing or plan to play in Chiapas?

Our role has always been the same: a fundamentally pastoral mission. We think that all critical situations require that we improve and enhance that mission, but we cannot claim to play a role other persons or institutions can and should play. Of course, the task of evangelization includes being of service to the community. From this perspective, there are many things the Church can do.

For example, acting as a representative of the voiceless, of those who are the most important — the people — but usually those that are forgotten or simply seen as pawns in a game by the most powerful players. Nevertheless, our most important service is to try to make the Gospel enter the minds and hearts of all, but especially of those who have to make the hardest decisions about the future of the region. For us, the only way to achieve peace is by bringing the faith to all communities.

Is the bishops’ Commission for National Reconciliation, of which you are a member, planning to play as specific a role as the one played by the COCOPA?

We don't want to play an official mediating role. Many are asking what sense this Commission has if it is not going to mediate. We believe that the Commission's work must be focused on understanding the problems better, being informed about the changes and the development of the situation in the area. In this context, we have been very actively involved in listening to the communities — their problems, their expectations, their fears — and on several occasions, we have been deeply involved in solving some local conflicts that have not been followed by the press but are certainly important. This month the members of the Commission are making a five-day trip to the most troubled areas in Chiapas to assess the people's need to talk to the authorities, and of course, to preach ways of reconciliation inspired by the Gospel.

How would you describe the pastoral work of the Church in Chiapas?

Chiapas is a very large and geographically complicated state. It is divided into nine regions, and each of the three dioceses includes three regions. The diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, with 1.3 million Catholics, has a 75% native population. In the diocese of Tuxtla Gutierrez that number is 35%, while Tapachula has a more racially mixed population and only 3.6% are natives. Therefore, the pastoral plan has to be very flexible, adapted to each particular situation and community. Nevertheless, I think that despite the different languages used or the different techniques applied, the common thing is that we have a pastoral plan focused on saving all men, body and soul, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, according to the guidelines proposed by the Second Vatican Council and the pastoral suggestions made by the Latin American bishops.

What particular challenges does the Church find in the evangelization of native communities that do not speak Spanish?

Well, we certainly are not starting from ground zero. The evangelization launched five centuries ago by the first missionaries bore great fruits. And the cultural values of the native communities are in great concordance with the Gospel: the community dimension, the respect for the environment, the sense of the permanent presence of God. Nevertheless, there are also several vices, like the fatalism and the lack of a sense of the connection between faith and morals, linked to some ancient cults and traditions. These are some of the challenges that we face. But it is important to say that the people proclaim themselves Catholics and keep up to Catholic traditions, so we don't think of the area as “mission territory.”

How might the Pope's upcoming visit help solve the situation in Chiapas?

Well, the Pope's visit next January, almost exactly 20 years after his first visit to Mexico, has given some momentum to peace talks, since almost all Mexicans would like to welcome the Holy Father in a peaceful country. But realistically speaking, we have very little chance of seeing it happen. In the worst case scenario, we expect the Holy Father will strongly encourage peace and reconciliation, thus motivating a stronger effort from the sides involved. Moreover, we expect that he will provide words and wisdom to change attitudes and find ways to live peacefully, as we all wish.

With the Pope's visit on the near horizon, the Mexican bishops have been making pleas for peace. What have their major themes been?

They have been calls to humility and realism. We believe that stubbornness and pride close minds and hearts and prevent them from listening to the other side's ideas. And the lack of realism makes each side believe they can achieve what they want without cooperation from the other. So we call on all sides to listen with open minds, trying to concede as much as they can in all that they do not consider fundamental. We are also calling for self-criticism and flexibility. As an example, the government has to realize that some national laws have to be adapted to respect native culture, while the Zapatistas have to realize that their violent actions are only isolating the region more and thus bringing more misery to the poor.

— Alejandro Bermudez