Islam Gains Toehold in Mexico’s Zapatista Country

Alistair Bell, Reuters, Jan. 25

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico—Islam has joined a battle for the hearts and minds of Mexico’s volatile Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas state, home of Zapatista rebels and a hotbed of sectarian strife between Christians.

In an unlikely meeting of two worlds, an idealistic Muslim sect has converted some 300 Tzotzils, a Maya Indian group known for drink-fueled fiestas and religious fervor.

“It was difficult to learn the prayers in Arabic at first but now I have them in my heart,” said Muhammad Emin Lopez, 46, a Tzotzil fruit merchant who boasts that his conversion to Islam in 1995 was the state’s first.

He prays five times a day as required in Islam, has gone on the obligatory “haj” pilgrimage to Mecca and attends a small mosque in a cornfield on the outskirts of the hill town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

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NEVER ASSIMILATED

Now numbering some 330,000, the Tzotzils in the mountains of Chiapas have never been fully assimilated into the Catholic, Hispanic world since Spain conquered Mexico in the 1500s.

Along with other poor Maya Indians, they form the backbone of the Zapatista guerrillas, who staged an uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and have now retired to bases in the jungle.

The Catholic Church has only a tenuous hold over the Tzotzils, some of whom sacrifice chickens in church and down moonshine known as “posh” during nominally Christian rites.

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“Our model is not ideological or utopian but is based on the life of our Prophet Mohammad,” reads a statement on the group’s Mexican web site, www.islammexico.org.mx.

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