Boy, Muslim missionaries are giving Mormons a run for their money. And the Christians, it seems, are left scratching their heads. From Ecumenical News International / 25 July 2005:
Islam said to gain converts among Mexico's Chiapas Protestants
By Manuel Quintero
Geneva, 25 July (ENI)--The rough, dusty roads are traversed by women with veils. Nearby in the state's capital, the original inhabitants are building a mosque. "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger," chant a group of children. A scene straight out of the Middle East, Asia or Africa? No, it's in the second largest Roman Catholic country in Latin America: Mexico, in its turbulent southern state of Chiapas.
The story began around 1994 when two Spaniards, Aureliano Pérez and Esteban López, brought Islamic teachings to a poor neighbourhood in the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, the Chiapas capital. It is a date well remembered by local inhabitants as the Zapatista Liberation Army launched an uprising at around the same time.
The Islamic teachers first preached to an indigenous community that had been expelled from their land in San Juan Chamula for abandoning their traditional Roman Catholic faith and communal practices in favour of Protestantism.
"Many of those who converted to Islam were Presbyterians," says the Rev. Dan Gonzalez, who visited Geneva recently as the new regional secretary of the World Student Christian Federation for Latin America. Gonzalez is a pastor with the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico. He says the Islamic teachers found fertile ground in Chiapas, a land of religious revivalism and struggles that has a population of just over 4 million and is the size of the Irish Republic.
"Among the Indian people there is a deep-seated religious identity, marked by syncretism, and a longing for hope in the different manifestations of the sacred," he added. The teachings of the Quran came hand in hand with a well-thought strategy for industrious work, something that, in Gonzalez's opinion, also explains the success of this experiment.
Islamic teachers promoted fruitful activities among their flock in three main areas: food, carpentry and textiles. An almost totally self-reliant economy was established, allowing men to practice Islam around the clock, while women - engaged in textile handicrafts - were assured of an independent income that improves the domestic economy, noted Gonzalez.
Some 300 Tzotzil Mayans make up the new Islamic community, the first among Latin American indigenous people. They are said to belong to the Sufi tradition, viewed as having a mystical version of Islam.
The Catholic bishop of San Cristobal, Felipe Arizmendi, has voiced concern about the growth of Islam in the state, but traditional Protestant churches have not objected, in the belief that tolerance and pluralism is needed in a fragmented society. Yet, in private, some Protestant leaders have expressed disappointment at the willingness of the Tzotzil Mayans to convert to yet another religion.