Bishop Samuel Ruiz; defended rights of Indians in Chiapas
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a staunch defender of Indian rights who served as a mediator in peace talks between the government and leftist Zapatista rebels, died yesterday at the age of 86.
Bishop Felipe Arizmendi, who replaced Bishop Ruiz as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, said the retired bishop died at a hospital in Mexico City. The federal Interior Department said Bishop Ruiz died of complications arising from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Bishop Ruiz became an icon of the struggle of the Mayan Indian groups who were marginalized and mistreated for so long that they were forced to work in slave-like conditions into the early 20th century, felling the forests on land that was once theirs.
President Felipe Calderon said in a statement that “Samuel Ruiz struggled to build a more just, more equal, dignified Mexico without discrimination,’’ adding that he “always acted with integrity and moral rectitude.’’
“His death represents a great loss for Mexico,’’ Calderon said
The praise was a sharp contrast to the suspicion Bishop Ruiz aroused in past federal governments that sometimes accused him of collaborating with the rebel movement or even leading it.
Bishop Ruiz led the diocese in the Chiapas highlands city from 1959 to 2000, when he stepped aside after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75.
The diocese is named after a 16th-century defender of Indian rights, Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, who publicized the mistreatment of Indians being worked to death in the mines and fields of the Spanish colonies. Five centuries later, they were still living in poverty.
Bishop Ruiz was known to his followers as the “Bishop of the Poor’’ or “Tatik’’ — father in the Tzotzil Indian language — while critics called him the “Red Bishop’’ during the brief, armed uprising by the Zapatistas in 1994 to demand greater Indian rights.
Some of the Zapatista leaders had earlier served as deacons under Bishop Ruiz before veering into the guerrilla group, and some conservatives accused Bishop Ruiz of secretly fomenting the rebellion, an allegation that largely faded away as the movement’s origins became better known.
Soon after the uprising, Bishop Ruiz was chosen to mediate talks between the government and the rebels. In 1998, the government pressured Bishop Ruiz to resign as mediator, implying he was too sympathetic to the guerrillas.
An uneasy truce has prevailed since then, with the Zapatistas holed up in a handful of “autonomous’’ townships in rural Chiapas where they do not recognize government authority.
“This marks the death of one of the great consciences in the defense of Indian rights and human rights,’’ said writer Homero Aridjis. “After Samuel Ruiz, it was impossible to look at Chiapas Indians, Indians in the whole Mayan area, in the same way.’’
Bishop Ruiz was part of the liberation theology movement that swept Latin America following the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. “Bishops like Samuel Ruiz took up the tradition of Fray Bartolome de las Casas,’’ said Aridjis. “It is sad that, five centuries later, they had to take up the same cause.’’
Bishop Ruiz tried to fend off the rapid growth of Protestant denominations by adapting to Indian customs. He relied heavily on married male lay workers because the Indian culture grants more respect to men who had children than to celibate men like priests.
Some worried the deacons may have overstepped the limited role foreseen for them in the Catholic hierarchy — tasks like reading Bible passages during Mass — possibly taking on some of the functions of priests.
In 2002, the Vatican asked Arizmendi to halt deacon ordinations, arguing that continuing them “would be equivalent to sustaining an ecclesiastic model alien to the life and traditions of the Church.’’
The practices of his “indigenous church’’ irritated conservatives, who suggested he was twisting church theology, and the Vatican opened an investigation that included a look at suspicions that women had been ordained as deacons and the use of Mayan works such as “Chilam Bilam’’ and the “Popol Vuh’’ were read.
The results of those investigations were not released.
Bishop Ruiz leaves a nephew.
Arizmendi said the retired bishop’s body will be returned to San Cristobal de Las Casas for a memorial service. Burial plans remained unclear.