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The Church’s Mexican standoff

Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres prays with the family of Uber driver Brayan Alanis Moreno at the site of his killing as part of the bishops’ Days of Prayer for Peace campaign. Credit: REUTERS/Alamy

Two Jesuit priests were murdered last month in northern Mexico.

Fathers Javier Campos and Joaquin Mora were well-known for their commitment to social outreach in Cerocahui, a small town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They were killed June 20 alongside Pedro Eliodoro Palma, the local tour guide they tried to help as he fled from a drug cartel.

Their killings, the latest in the most violent year on record for the country, triggered a wave of public outcry and led to a sharp deterioration of relations between the government and Church leaders in the country — including a sharp exchange of statements between the administration and the bishops’ conference, and a national campaign of processions and prayer organized by the Church.

As an order, the Society of Jesus has been present in the area around Cerocahui since the 16th century, when Jesuits established a mission in the Tarahumara mountains.

The priests killed last month also had long roots in the region.

Campos was superior of the area’s Jesuit mission for 34 years; Mora served as the mission’s vicar for more than two decades. Locals say the priests were committed to defending the local culture and bringing education and basic services to the poor.

Both priests were well-known for learning the local Indigenous language and protecting the customs of local communities.

Their killings were part of a rising spate of murders in Mexico. According to the Department of Security and Citizen Protection of Mexico, there are 82 unsolved murders per day in the country.

In 2022 so far, more than 33,000 people have been murdered, almost the same number as were killed in 2019 — the most violent year in Mexico’s history, which saw 34,688 homicides.

Priests are not exempt from the violence — 30 have been killed in the last decade, including 7 during the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often known as AMLO.

Obrador, a left-leaning populist, was elected Mexico’s president by a landslide in 2018. But a promised overhaul of the government’s security strategy under his administration has failed to halt the violence.

Even so, for many Mexican Catholics, the murder of Campos and Mora is different. For some, even, it is the last straw. And Mexico’s Catholic bishops have begun venting their frustration, leveling sharp criticism at the Obrador administration in recent weeks.

Understanding the situation between Church and state in Mexico requires 160 years of context.

Despite the popular image of Mexico as a deeply Catholic country, it has a long history of strict separation between Church and government.

At the end of the 1850s, President Benito Juárez –a former seminarian– nationalized many Church properties and expelled almost all religious orders from the country.

His policies were widely ignored during the four-decade presidency of Porfirio Díaz, which spanned from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. But the anti-clerical sentiments quickly returned with the “Calles law” in 1926, which restricted Catholic practice in the country even further, required state registration and licencing of priests, and limited their numbers to one per 6,000 people.

The law was a major cause of the Cristero war, which ended in a stalemate in 1929, after which the Mexican government rarely applied the restrictions, but did not formally eliminate them.

Relations between the Vatican and the Mexican state, severed since the time of the anti-Catholic laws and conflicts, were only formally re-established in 1992. Since then, they have been mostly cordial but cold.

But AMLO has emerged as a different kind of politician.

His brand of left-wing politics is more often compared to Hugo Chávez than Justin Trudeau. And while he has appealed to religiosity in his speeches, he does so in broad terms. The president claims the name of his party (Morena) is dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, but his rallies are filled with indigenous religious imagery and he is mostly allied with hardline Pentecostal leaders in the country.

Nevertheless, during the first four years of his presidency, the Obrador administration’s relations with the Church remained relatively cordial, despite isolated criticisms periodically.

But the murders of Campos and Mora appear to have marked a shift.

The Jesuits are widely considered the most influential Catholic institution in the country, with a large network of universities, schools, and social assistance projects. And many of their number have been quite open to collaborating with the Obrador government, especially on his social policies.

But within a few days of the murders, the rectors and directors of the Jesuit University System of Mexico signed a statement saying that the government’s security policy “is not working.”

“On the contrary, drug trafficking advances. We are alone, abandoned, subject to the law of the strongest,” they said, calling Mexico a “failed state.”

The bishops’ conference also sharply criticized the government security strategy, characterized by the president as “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets).

Mexico’s episcopal conference has called the approach a “failing” strategy that needs revising, and the superior of the Jesuits in Mexico, Luis Gerardo Moro has called it “a trite phrase.”

After AMLO blamed the current situation on the former government of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), the bishops’ conference issued a statement saying that “it is not useful to deny reality and blame past times on what we need to solve right now.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman of the Archdiocese of Guadalajara has said that priests in the diocese must pay extortion fees to criminal groups to avoid harassment, especially for public events.

In response, Obrador went on the offensive, dismissing the extortion claims, saying “just because they are religious, they are not infallible” and that the media “is capable of inventing anything,” while also promising to investigate.

The president has also said clergy critical of him were “not following Pope Francis’ example, because they are subservient to the Mexican oligarchy.”

“What do priests want? Do they want us to solve [matters] with violence? Are we betting on war? Why didn’t they act with Calderón like this?”

After Ramón Castro, secretary-general of the Mexican bishops’ conference, said that the “abrazos, no balazos” strategy was “demagoguery and complicity” with organized crime, AMLO responded, dismissing the criticism as “anti-Christian,” and saying that “a priest, bishop or pastor cannot say that violence must be solved to violence, it is anti-religious and especially anti-Christian, theologically speaking.”

Shortly thereafter, at the beginning of July, the bishops launched a “Days of prayer for peace” campaign, a 10-day program of masses and prayer for the murdered priests and all victims of violence in the country, with a focus on holding processions and prays in “significant places that represent people who have gone missing or suffered a violent death.”

“Our bet is on social dialogue to build a way of justice and reconciliation that leads us to peace,” the bishops said in a statement. So far, the protests have been ignored by the government, and there are no signs of a coming policy change.

This standoff between the Mexican government and the Church, and the harshness of the statements exchanged has drawn widespread media attention, with some suggesting that the media is itself using the Church as a political pawn to further a political agenda.

“They are trying to sell this as if there were an absolute break between the Church and AMLO, it is not exactly like that,” Gerardo Garibay, a Mexican political analyst, told The Pillar.

“The Church is denouncing insecurity, as they have done for a long time, but the Mexican opposition is desperate and has tried to use the Church to affect AMLO,”

“There is certainly some distance between the Church and the president, who probably felt hurt by such a frontal criticism of the Church and thus assumed a more aggressive stance against it, but the Church is right to denounce it because we are at historical levels of violence,” he said.

“I am worried that many members of the opposition, including some of the most progressive and anti-Catholic, are now using the Church to attack AMLO. Their attacks rarely work, but the Church’s Days of Prayer for Peace of the Church worked — people reacted and attended. So now they’re trying to use the Church as a bat to hit López Obrador no matter if it ends in a deeper conflict  — in which the Church might end up getting the short end of the stick.”

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