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Constructing faith for the displaced
By Carmen Duarte

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 07.03.2006

Editor's note: This article appeared previously in La Estrella, the Star's Spanish-language edition.

In the thick pine and oak forests in the highlands of Chiapas — the most southern state in Mexico — Chamula Tsostil Indians are working to complete the San Juan Diego Church.
It is a church founded by displaced indigenous communities in the outskirts of the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

"This parish was founded earlier this year, and it is the first parish founded by indigenous in the town," said the Rev. Miguel Rolland, who served in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas for five years.

Today, Rolland is serving at St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center on the University of Arizona campus.

The Dominican priest, who is studying for his doctorate in cultural anthropology at Arizona State University, is sharing the history, politics and the role of the Catholic Church and its support for the indigenous communities of Chiapas with the congregation, students and organizations.

"There are about 50 villages that come to services at San Juan Diego parish. Many of the indigenous are exiled from various municipalities, including San Juan Chamula, because of religious and political persecution since 1974," said Rolland, adding that the parish has a strong women's movement, catechist and diaconate programs. "There is a tremendous amount of military presence in Chiapas," said Rolland, who has met masked members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. The rebels represent poor, dispossessed indigenous communities. The organization demands property, human and civil rights for displaced indigenous communities. Zapatistas are working to create autonomous education, health and political systems, Rolland said.

Rolland took 10 UA students to Chiapas in the spring and they, the Knights of Columbus Council 1200, the League of United Latin American Citizens Council 1057 and St. Thomas More parishioners are working to raise $10,000 for the completion of San Juan Diego Church.

Donations are also being accepted for social services, health and education programs among the indigenous communities of San Juan, Tres Cruces and Cascajal.

Evan Richards, a recent UA graduate who is working locally as an integration engineer, said his trip to Chiapas gave him an insight to the poverty and human rights violations indigenous people experience in Mexico.
Richards said he also understood the importance of sanctuary and the needs being met at San Juan Diego Church. After meeting Zapatista rebels, Richards said he better understands the movement and its simple message of dignity for all human beings.

UA senior Tanner John, who is majoring in molecular/cellular biology and religious studies, said he was moved by the deep faith he witnessed among congregations. He said faith is helping communities stand strong in their struggle for justice and equality.


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