IZAMAL, MEXICO, AUG. 11 -- Against the backdrop of a colonial monastery, Pope John Paul II today saluted indigenous Americans "from the Alaskan peninsula to Tierra del Fuego," condemning conditions that forced Indians into poverty and denouncing colonialists who attempted to wipe out Indian cultures.

Church officials said John Paul's appearance in Izamal was an attempt to reach out to southern Mexico's Mayan Indians, whose souls are at the center of a tug of war between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant sects that have been drawing numerous converts from a faith that has been dominant in Mexico since the Spanish colonial era.

According to 1990 census figures, the number of Catholics in Mexico dropped to 89.6 percent of the population after hovering for the previous three decades between 94 and 96 percent. The majority of those leaving the faith have turned to Protestantism, the statistics showed.

The pope asserted that the Catholic Church traditionally has been "the tireless defender of the Indians," but he failed to acknowlege that from the very site of his appearance today in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, the colonial church administered torture of Indians and systematically attempted to destroy centuries-old books of Mayan history.

Later, in the nearby city of Merida, the pontiff commemorated Mexico's restoration of diplomatic ties with the Vatican last September, saying the first legally recognized papal Mass in Mexico in generations. Close to 1 million people attended the service, many of them standing all day in ankle-deep mud.

John Paul previously visited Mexico in 1979 and again in 1990, saying Mass as Mexican authorities adhered to their longstanding tradition of turning a blind eye to violations of the country's anticlerical legislation.

The pope, whose face appeared sunburned from a visit Tuesday to Jamaica, was greeted in Merida by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who was responsible for reversing the cold relationship between this country and the Vatican that began with the Mexican revolutions of the late 19th century.

In a short arrival address, John Paul condemned the May 24 killing at Guadalajara airport of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, calling it an act of "barbarous and unjustifiable violence" against one of the top church representatives in Mexico.

But the pontiff did not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the killing, in which members of a major drug-trafficking organization pumped 14 bullets into Posadas at point-blank range in broad daylight, then escaped aboard a commercial jetliner that had been held at an airport gate for them. The Mexican government has declared that Posadas's killing was accidental, a position officially endorsed by the Catholic Church, although individual bishops and priests have disputed it.

The pope did not directly address the growing number of conversions to Protestantism here but attempted to shore up the Catholic Church's image as a historically ardent defender of indigenous cultures and values throughout the Americas. He said that since the beginning of its activities in the New World, the church has been "the tireless defender of the Indians, protector of the values inherent in their cultures {and} promoter of humanity in the face of abuses by sometimes unscrupulous colonialists."

The Vatican selected Izamal, a regional religious center for the Mayans dating back to well before the arrival of Columbus in the New World, to demonstrate centuries of harmonious relations between the church and the Mayans. Only indigenous believers were permitted to attend the papal ceremony here at the 400-year-old Virgin of Izamal monastery, built only 200 yards from a pyramid once used by the Mayans for rituals and sacrifices.

But according to historian Inga Clendinnen, author of the book "Ambivalent Conquests," which documents church atrocities against Indians of the Yucatan from 1517 to 1570, the monastery was built atop one of the Mayan Indians' holiest sanctuaries, and from the monastery Bishop Diego de la Landa directed church efforts to burn hundreds of ancient Mayan historical documents.

In a poignant demonstration that primal rituals still thrive in Mayan culture -- even among Catholics -- a troupe of dancers in traditional costumes and dragon masks performed a rain dance to the Mayan god Zamina on stage before the pope. Women in skin-tight, flesh-colored leotards jumped and pirouetted, and at one point a Mayan man sensuously embraced one of the women.

Gabriel Gamboa Crespo, a Franciscan monk, said the church has been losing followers to evangelical sects in part because it had sought to discourage such demonstrations of Mayan culture, alienating Indians in the process.

Efrain Cruz, a Catholic Indian, said that many indigenous Mexicans feel they have never been an integral part of the church and resent the role it played in trying to destroy their culture. "We had this religion forced upon us," Cruz said. "Many of us felt it was not our choice to become Catholics from the beginning."

John Paul is to fly to Denver Thursday to take part in a youth festival and meet with President Clinton.

President Clinton is scheduled to meet Pope John Paul II today during the pope's four-day visit to Denver.

TODAY

4:30 p.m.: Pope John Paul II's arrival, greeting by President Clinton, Stapleton International Airport

5:45 p.m.: Pope and Clinton meeting, Regis University

7:30 p.m.: Papal welcome by World Youth Day participants, Mile High Stadium

FRIDAY

9:30 a.m.: Pope celebrates Mass for U.S. bishops at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

10:45 a.m.: Pope is presented with mementos by youths, East High School

Noon: Pope is transported by helicopter to Camp St. Malo, Allenspark

9:30 p.m.: Stations of the Cross, Mile High Stadium

SATURDAY

10 a.m.: World Youth Day participants leave Civic Center Park on 14-mile pilgrimage to Cherry Creek State Park

11 a.m.: Papal Mass with World Youth Day delegates, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

5:30 p.m.: Archdiocese of Denver welcomes Pope, McNichols Sports Arena

9 p.m.: Pope holds vigil with youths at Cherry Creek State Park

SUNDAY

11:30 a.m.: Papal Mass at Cherry Creek State Park

6:30 p.m.: Papal audience with Vietnamese Catholics, McNichols Sports Arena

8 p.m.: Pope visits St. Vincent Home

9:15 p.m.: Pope departs for Rome, Stapleton International Airport

NOTE: All times are Eastern Daylight Time