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Evangelists divide Huichol communities, cause conflict

HUEJUQUILLA EL ALTO, Mexico - In a housing project called Emmanuel, in a dusty field high in the Sierra Madre, a church is rising. The brick and mortar men are Huichol Natives, having traded their peyote rites for a stucco home and a Bible.

Thirteen families have recently moved into Emmanuel after being forcibly run out of the Huichol pueblo of Santa Catarina. Their story is increasingly common across Latin America, where Native pueblos have been targeted for conversion by evangelical sects - and are pushing back with force.

Consisting of a half-dozen small duplexes of brick and yellow stucco, Emmanuel was paid for by state authorities and project residents, with help from a church in nearby Zacatecas. Religious supporters from Minnesota and New York state have come south to help build the cement block church under construction.

The people of Emmanuel were turned out of the pueblo, said resident David Robles Enriques, for ''intolerance of religion'' when they converted to evangelical Christianity.

Enriques said he used to sacrifice animals in the Huichol way, ''but everyone in my family was sick.'' Rojelio Avila Garcia, another resident, lost a son to illness and resented the failure of tribal healers to save him.

''I believed everything,'' Garcia said. ''I searched for the truth but it wasn't there.'' He dismissed his native Huichol traditions out of hand. ''Those beliefs are satanic. I felt a great love and uplift in my heart when I converted.''

The converts value the simplicity of their new lives. ''We had 80 or 100 different gods in the pueblo,'' said Enriques. ''Now we have one.'' They oppose animal sacrifice and polygamy, two practices firmly entrenched among the Huichol.

Enriques said he was beaten by the Santa Catarina authorities and jailed for 72 hours without food or drink. He compared life in his old pueblo to the biblical enslavement of the Israelites, saying that the demands of rotating community jobs, or ''cargos,'' typically unpaid, are an onerous burden for people of little means.

Finished late last year, the Emmanuel projects cover about eight acres, including a field of corn and a small pond for fishing. Residents said they left family members behind in Santa Catarina who still practice the old ways. Others, they said, are on the verge of being expelled. In building an adjacent temple, where services will be held in Spanish and Huichol, they hope ''to share the word with other people,'' said Avila.

In Nueva Colonia, a nearby Huichol pueblo, similar problems have developed. Thirty families in an outlying settlement, nearly 10 percent of the pueblo, have been evangelized in recent years. When expelled, they were loaded on trucks and shipped out of the community.

Converts often attribute their change of heart to seeing a loved one cured by a faith healer. Established churches in Mexico and the United States provide additional incentives for conversion, including clothing, food, money and the promise of work.

Evangelicals use the Bible to ''mutilate the local traditional culture,'' countered Xaureme-Jesus Candelario Cosio, a native of Nueva Colonia and local district school supervisor. ''The government follows a strategy by which it divides the pueblos. The government wants their land, ultimately. And the evangelists are in inroad into community control.''

Nueva Colonia is a poor settlement. Aside from the school and medical clinic, the village lacks running water, sewer lines and electricity. Most houses consist of one room with beaten earth floors. Less than 10 percent of the population has completed high school, and the vast majority is functionally illiterate. One in three residents is under age 10.

Cosio, whose in-laws have converted, said the evangelicals threaten community cohesion when they abandon their cargos. Although most cargos change annually, the important ones, including several dozen in Nueva Colonia, last five years. A shrinking pool of candidates increases the strain on remaining community members.

Locally known as ''Hallelujahs,'' the evangelists arrived in Huichol territory in the 1990s, flying into the back country because there were no roads. In 2001, banned by pueblo authorities, they hired airplanes to fly over and drop portable radios tuned to a Los Angeles station that broadcasts Christian sermons. Community authorities gathered up the radios and destroyed them.

Often financed from the United States, evangelicals and their allies have made significant inroads in Mexico, from Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons to born-again Pentecostals and high church Presbyterians. In 1970, only 2 percent of Mexicans identified with Protestant and related sects; that number had quadrupled by the end of the century.

''If a person changes religion, he changes identity,'' Cosio said. ''He lacks conviction. If an Indian has beliefs and then adopts others, that's his business. But what shouldn't change is a way of life established over generations and maintaining a proper respect for it.''

Others, including non-Huichols, see local ceremonies, inspired by peyote, as powerful religious rites worth protecting. Carmen Huerta Estrada, a doctor at the Nueva Colonia clinic, is proud that modern vaccines have erased infant mortality in the community. But she has also visited sacred traditional sites, attended ceremonies, seen miracles performed by healers and been cured by shamans herself.

If modern-day pressures continue to mount, said Estrada, ''the religion will be the last thing to go - after the language, the customs, the clothing. I'm not against believing in one god,'' said added. ''But the reason for the Huichol is the ceremony. It's not just about customs; it's a way of knowledge.''