‘Indefensible’: 150 ousted Baptists in Mexico face illegal fine to return home

HIDALGO, Mexico (BP) – More than 150 Baptists forced from their homes because of their faith are protesting a local government plan to let them return home if they pay their persecutors $9,026, CSW (formerly Christian Solidarity Worldwide) said May 16.

Under the plan offered by the city of Huejutla de los Reyes, the members of Great Commission Baptist Church would pay the collective fine (150,000 Mexican Pesos) to the very Roman Catholic community leaders who forced them from their homes and property, CSW said, and would continue to suffer religious liberty restrictions imposed under the Law of Uses and Customs.

Three families would still be banned from their homes, and the Roman Catholic community leaders would face no penalties.

Great Commission Baptist Church Pastor Rogelio Hernández Baltazar and church leader Nicolás Hernández Solórzano protested the government’s plan in a May 15 press conference. The displaced families, initially sheltered in the Municipal Presidency building, have been moved to another location and are dependent on community donations and aid from local churches for food and water.

Anna Lee Stangl, head of advocacy for CSW, called the plan “indefensible.”

“By pushing this illegal agreement, they make themselves complicit in the ongoing, egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief in Coamila and Rancho Nuevo,” Stangl said in a press release. “This is unacceptable in a democratic country like Mexico which guarantees freedom of religion or belief for all in its constitution and the international human rights conventions to which it is party.”

The Baptists were forced April 26 to flee their homes in Coamila and Rancho Nuevo, indigenous Nahuatl-speaking communities in Hidalgo, after village leaders cut off their electricity, vandalized and blocked access to some of their homes and the church, and posted guards at village entry points.

Originally counted as 139, those displaced swelled past 150 to include those who were working outside the villages April 26 and not permitted to return home.

CSW urged the Hidalgo State and federal governments to intervene urgently “to make it clear that freedom of religion or belief extends to all, including in Huejutla de los Reyes Municipality, regardless of their ethno-linguistic identity and their religion or belief.”

Despite the guarantee of religious freedom in Mexico’s constitution, a dual legal system allows local indigenous communities to govern under the Law on Uses and Customs. The laws, which vary by village and customs, are often exploited against religious minorities, several religious freedom watchdog groups have reported.

The violations have intensified in the villages since 2015, CSW said, with local authorities repeatedly attempting to force the Baptists to participate in Roman Catholic religious festivals. Local authorities have tried to force the church members to monetarily support Catholic events and actively participate in acts of worship.

Protestants in several Hidalgo villages have also faced severe beatings, lack of access to medical care, arbitrary detainment, employment discrimination and confiscation of property. Children of religious minorities have been blocked since 2018 from attending the local school.

Hidalgo has one of the highest numbers of such cases in Mexico, CSW said, and the local government refuses to cite the actions as religious freedom violations.

The U.S. Department of State, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and persecution watchdog Open Doors have all reported that customs and use laws have led to the persecution of religious minorities in Mexico.

Open Doors ranked Mexico as 37 on its list of the 50 countries where Christians suffer the most persecution.

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