Samuel Ruiz, Mexican priest who sought rights for Maya Indians, dies at 86

By Tracy Wilkinson
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 7:15 PM

For 40 years as a bishop in Mexico's impoverished Chiapas state, the Rev. Samuel Ruiz championed the rights of the long-suffering Maya Indians who dominate the lush region. Father Ruiz, who learned the Mayan languages and adopted their customs into Roman Catholic practice, died Jan. 17 in Mexico City at age 86. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Bishop Ruiz made powerful enemies among rich landowners, Mexican governments and even the Vatican. He mediated the Zapatista peasant revolt of the 1990s and was both praised for helping to avoid wider bloodshed and criticized for supposedly inciting the rebels in the first place.

"He always understood that his work was from a church that served the world, not a church that kept silent and made deals with the powerful," said Bishop Raul Vera, who worked at Bishop Ruiz's side in the Chiapas capital, San Cristobal de las Casas, for five years.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Bishop Ruiz "worked to build a Mexico that was more just, egalitarian, dignified and free of discrimination, where indigenous communities could have a voice and their rights and freedoms respected by all."

Samuel Ruiz Garcia was born Nov. 3, 1924, in the conservative silver-mining Mexican state of Guanajuato. He was ordained as a priest in 1949 in Rome, where he studied at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University. Eleven years later, he was made a bishop and sent to Chiapas, in southernmost Mexico.

Initially, his plan was to change the ways of the indigenous communities. But, as he recalled in 1999 at a ceremony marking his retirement, they changed him.

It was also a period of great change in the Catholic Church. Reformers inspired by the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965 sought to make the church more accessible to native populations, a trend especially strong in Latin America, where "liberation theology," which favors political activism on behalf of the poor, took root.

Embracing that movement, Bishop Ruiz organized a network of rural catechists, or lay Bible teachers, who fanned out across Chiapas, enabling Indians to participate in church worship in ways never before possible.

"Peace for a Christian is an ongoing task; but peace goes hand in hand with justice," Bishop Ruiz told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. "There can be no peace if there is no justice. Justice means bringing down from their throne those who are privileged and elevating those who are humble to the same heights."

Bishop Ruiz's promotion of the rights and culture of the indigenous put him on a collision course with the local land barons and entrenched government officials. He once said he had received more death threats than he could count. In 1993, Vatican officials attempted to force him to resign.

On Jan. 1, 1994, leftist Zapatista rebels from the jungle-covered hills of Chiapas took on the Mexican army to demand democratic reforms and equal treatment for indigenous Mexicans. At least 145 people were killed in 12 days of fighting.

Bishop Ruiz was the mediator between the Zapatistas and the government. Eventually, a truce of sorts was declared. Many in Mexico saw Bishop Ruiz as overly sympathetic to the Zapatistas; he said he supported their demands but not their use of violence.

Tensions in Chiapas involving politics, land disputes and religious differences festered for years. In November 1997, Bishop Ruiz survived an ambush in an area controlled by paramilitary groups. Three of his associates were wounded.

Six weeks later, pro-government attackers using guns and machetes killed 45 unarmed peasants, most of them women and children, in a small Chiapas village. Bishop Ruiz angrily led the funeral Mass.

Bishop Ruiz turned 75 at the end of 1999, the mandatory retirement age for bishops. The pope sometimes makes exceptions, but not in his case. Bishop Ruiz retired in 2000 and remained bishop emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas until his death.

- Los Angeles Times

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