April 30, 2002

SAN JUAN CHAMULA Mexico (AP) - Leaders of this Maya Indian town said Tuesday they have expelled Roman Catholic priests and broken ties with the local diocese, re-igniting one of the most stubborn religious controversies in the hemisphere.

Town residents who observe a mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs have been involved in a decades-long battle with both the official church hierarchy and rapidly encroaching Protestant groups.

Town council member Juan Perez Heredia justified this week's expulsion, saying two local priests and a deacon had allowed Protestant women to enter and preach in the Chamula church, offending traditionalists.

There was no immediate response from officials in the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, a few miles south of Chamula.

Traditional officials in Chamula have driven tens of thousands of people out of the mountainous municipality over the past 30 years for abandoning the local faith. Local ceremonies use pine boughs, eggs, soft drinks, alcohol and candles in healing rituals held in the nominally Catholic church.

The town leaders have demanded uniformity in religion and, until recently, in politics, saying that dissent weakened an embattled culture that has survived several bluntly genocidal wars in recent centuries. Critics charged that local bosses were manipulating the cultural issue to keep themselves in power.

Perhaps no town in the Americas has been more studied by anthropologists. It is also a major draw for tourists who visit the candle-strewn San Juan Bautista church - the only church allowed in the municipality - to see pious, glassy eyed locals mumble prayers while swigging a traditional cane alcohol and Coca Cola.

Local relations with the San Cristobal diocese had been restored only last June. Considering the nearby bishops too soft on Protestants, town leaders affiliated their church with a more distant Roman Catholic diocese in 1973.

For several years, they broke with Roman Catholicism entirely, turning to a renegade priest who had been expelled by Vatican.

Town leaders are especially hostile to evangelical Protestants, who refuse to share the costs of the alcohol-drenched town festival that officials see as a focus of local identity, and which takes a heavy toll on the savings of participants.

Perez said the priests ``let evangelical women enter the temple with their Bibles to preach,'' and he said the priests were expelled to avoid outbursts of confrontation between traditionalists and Protestants.

A decree issued by the town government and addressed to Bishop Felipe Arizmendi said his priests' services were being canceled as of April 22.

``It is our intention to try to enrich even more our culture, customs and traditions, which have characterized us as a municipality different from others,'' the decree said.

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