Three Roman Catholic priests, including an American parish priest from Los Angeles, have been expelled from Mexico by government authorities who accused them of inciting violence in the troubled southern state of Chiapas, where talks to end a 17-month old Indian insurrection are scheduled to resume July 4.
By asserting that the priests had been deported because their presence threatened the peace effort, government officials repeated allegations of the Church’s role in the Chiapas conflict that have made since fighting began on Jan. 1, 1994.
But church officials from the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, where all three priests worked, said the charges against the three priests were manufactured and that the expulsions will create even more tension in Chiapas.
“The local people are going to take this as a slap against the guys who were trying to mediate peace,” said the deported American priest, Father Loren Riebe, in a telephone interview from Miami, where he was taken by Mexican immigration officials. “It becoming clear that what the government really wants is more conflict.”
Riebe, 52, has worked in Chiapas for more than two decades. For the last 18 years he has been assigned to St. James parish in Yajalon, a town of about 9,000 about 30 miles from the area where the Zapatista National Liberation Army has its greatest support.
The other priests are Jorge Alberto Baron, 54, of Argentina, and Rodolfo Izal Elorz, 35, of Spain. Baron has worked in Chiapas for over a decade, while Father Izal Elorz has collaborated with the diocese of San Cristobal since arriving in Chiapas in 1990.
Federal agents arrested the three priests Thursday afternoon. They were taken to Mexico City where they met Friday morning with representatives of their respective embassies before being put on an American Airlines flight to Miami.
Riebe said he was grabbed at a roadblock on the road leading out of Yajalon after he heard that one of the other priests had been detained. “I had no idea what they were going to do with us,” he said. “If I had been alone this would have been terrifying. I was just waiting for them to stop or take a side road somewhere.”
The three priests were interrogated at the Mexico City airport, but Riebe said it was never clear what they were being charged with. He said he assumed that he had been deported because of problems with his immigration papers.
Since the Zapatista uprising began, he said, the government has refused to renew the immigration papers of foreign priests in Chiapas.
At a news conference Friday, government officials said that in the last few weeks they had received 16 complaints from local residents that the three priests were encouraging peasants to stage violent takeovers of privately owned farm land.
The government accused the foreign priests of “creating a climate that deepens and accentuates the differences among communities.” Their expulsion, the government said, was necessary to guarantee the rule of law in Chiapas, where peace talks are to resume next month.
Peace talks last year failed, and a new round that started in March has accomplished little beyond preventing a resumption of fighting.
The bishop of San Cristobal, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, who has been acting as a mediator in the talks, has been accused of encouraging the Zapatista rebels to launch their uprising.