After turmoil, Adventists in Chiapas make plans to celebrate religious freedom

Announcement comes during four-day visit by church leaders

For many years, the Adventist congregation in Yasha, Chiapas, met on a concrete foundation covered with a corrugated tin roof. The surrounding community wouldn't allow them to complete their nearby church building. [Photo: Ansel Oliver/ANN]

Plans for a major Religious Freedom Festival in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas hold tremendous significance for Seventh-day Adventists who, along with other Protestant groups, have endured decades of persecution and violence. Pastor David Perez, president of the Adventist Church in South Mexico, says the Festival will be held in March 2013 and will send a "strong message from a region where religious persecution has affected the lives of so many people. It will be a message of thanks to God and to the country for the peace and religious freedom we have in Chiapas now."

For the past 30 years, religious conflict has plagued the villages of the largely rural state of Chiapas, with violence regularly flaring between members of the dominant religious denomination and the minority Protestant churches.

In 2001, some fifty Adventist members were attacked and expelled from the town of Justo Sierra for refusing to work on Saturday, or Sabbath, to prepare the town for local religious festivities. This was just one of a series of similar incidents over the years in which more than 6,000 Protestant Christians were expelled from their homes or had to leave their villages to save their lives because of disagreements over land rights or participation in community religious events.

Throughout these years, Pastor Perez developed an active, but judicious, diplomatic effort to protect religious minorities. The result has been authorization for Adventists to go back to their homes and to continue to practice their faith.

Plans for the 2013 Religious Freedom Festival were announced at the conclusion of the Second Forum on Religious Freedom, held in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and organized by Adventist pastor Cesar Maya. Some 650 religious liberty leaders from across the state attended the event.

One of the speakers at the Forum was Dr. John Graz, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Adventist world church, who was on a four-day visit to Chiapas speaking with pastors and students. Pastor Roberto Herrera, PARL director for the church in Inter America, traveled with Dr. Graz and led several meetings. He underlined the need to do everything possible to promote good relations between members of different churches, to be more active in promoting religious freedom for all people, and to build a culture of mutual respect when conducting outreach.

This tour promoting religious freedom and public affairs in Chiapas was timely, according to Union President David Perez. "This emphasis was what our church leaders needed--it allowed them to receive answers to many of their questions, and it has helped us establish future actions in favor of religious freedom in Chiapas."

There are some 308,000 Adventist Church members in South Mexico--210,000 who live in Chiapas. The Adventist Church in South Mexico operates the University of Linda Vista, along with several primary and secondary schools and a 40-bed hospital.