August 01, 2002

MEXICO CITY (AP)--Greeting his followers in the Zapotec language, Pope John Paul II ended an 11-day pilgrimage on Thursday by reaching out to Indians, who have been steadily deserting the Roman Catholic church, and urging the faithful to treat native Americans with greater respect.

Despite health problems that left his body bent and his words slurred, the 82-year-old pope ignored aides' pleas to cut back his trip, and traveled to Guatemala and Mexico to deliver a message that the church cares about Indians in the Americas, home to the largest Catholic populations in the world.

On Thursday, amid thick clouds of incense, a seemingly invigorated John Paul beatified two Zapotec Indians martyred in 1700. He urged all Catholics to be as faithful to their religion as the two men were. Essentially informants for the colonial government, they were killed by an angry mob after telling authorities about a Zapotec religious ceremony.

``As they were being tortured, they were invited to renounce their Catholic faith and save themselves. But they answered bravely: `Once we have professed baptism, we shall always follow the true religion,''' the pope said before leaving for Rome.

Ironically, Thursday's ceremony was filled with rituals reminiscent of the pagan ceremonies about which the men had warned authorities.

Clouds of incense filled the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe as dancers in elaborate feathered headdresses leapt and spun to Indian band music. Indian women brushed herbs over the pope and other clerics, a traditional practice originally meant to cleanse people of illness and evil spirits.

John Paul called the martyrs examples of how ``one can reach God without renouncing one's own culture.''

The pope, who suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease and hip and knee problems, appeared invigorated, tapping his fingers to the music and smiling at the dancers.

The pope had appeared well in Toronto on the first leg of his trip, but as the days progressed, he showed signs of weakening, slumping more and more in his chair and straining to lift his head. He appeared more alert on Thursday, but will have little time to recover from this trip: He travels again to his native Poland on Aug. 16.

On Thursday, for the third straight day, John Paul appealed for greater respect for Indians, who suffer poverty and discrimination throughout the Americas. He urged his followers to have ``brotherly solidarity with the neediest and the marginalized.''

But outside the basilica, where hundreds of thousands lined the pope's route, the papal stress on Indians was overshadowed by the pope's sheer presence in a country that has embraced him as an adoptive father.

When asked what the pope's main message had been, no Mexicans of European descent mentioned Indians, and even Indians in the crowd were pessimistic that the pontiff's words would create fundamental change.

``Many people see us as poor, and don't think we have the same heart as they do,'' said Maria Andrea Reyes, 38, from the Indian village of San Miguel Tenextatiloyan, east of Mexico City. ``For the next few days, some people might say: `Yes, let's give them a hand,' but after that there won't be much interest.''

Reyes, who earns $20 a week as a maid, said many townspeople have left the Catholic Church to become Jehovah's Witnesses.

``I don't know how, but those Jehovah folks convince people really fast,'' she said. ``Catholics need to talk to people more, explain things. They need to be more patient.''

The Catholic church also faces other hurdles among Indians. While Mexico now has an Indian saint, none of its 132 bishops are Indian. Priests are spread thin in Indian areas - and few can speak to their followers in their native languages. Protestant groups, in contrast, have spent decades translating the Bible into even obscure Indian languages. John Paul's trip was in large part an attempt to address that gap. In addition to beatifying Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles, he canonized Juan Diego - the first Indian saint in the Americas - and Pedro de San Jose Betancur, a Guatemalan missionary who preached to the downtrodden. John Paul's appeals for human rights, justice and better treatment for the region's Indians was encouraging to many.

``What the pope said is very important, because we indigenous people are forgotten, and now the government should take up the issue and help us more to have a better quality of life,'' said Juan Lopez Santis, a Catholic leader in the southern Mexican town of San Juan Chamula.

President Vicente Fox, speaking at the airport as the pope's airplane taxied away, pledged to do exactly that.

``The pope left us with a renewed commitment to indigenous peoples ... to integrate them fully into today's Mexico,'' he said, then repeated a phrase used by the pope the previous day: ``Mexico needs its Indians, and Indians need Mexico.''

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