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by Esther Schrader

NAME:
Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia
NICKNAME:
The “Red Bishop,” as christened by his critics
WHAT HE DOES:
Preaches liberation theology; mediates between the Mexican government and Indian rebels in Chiapas
BIGGEST TURNAROUND:
Went from car-bomb target to prospective nobel peace prize-winner last winter
FAVORITE TARGETS:
Chiapas’ ruling elite, as well as the Mexican army and government officials; routinely accuses them of abusing Indians’ rights
TAKES FLAK FROM:
The Vatican, which urged Ruiz to resign last October, but backpedaled after public outcry; issue is still unresolved

Following the years of abuse that Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia received from the Vatican and the Mexican government, the respect he’s suddenly getting from both must be sweet revenge. A few months ago, church and state were calling Ruiz the man responsible for inciting the January Chiapas Indian revolt; today, the feisty theologian with thick glasses and a slightly distracted air is being hailed as Mexico’s symbol of peace.

As the mediator between Indians and Mexican officials, the 69-year-old Ruiz may shake the hand of a government envoy one day and spit fire at what he calls the “lies” of the Mexican army the next. “I just believe that if Mexico is to flourish, we have to look first and foremost to the keepers of our ancient cultures, to the Indians,” he says. “We have to treat their culture with care and respect and understanding, and give them the economic and political strength they need to survive.” Such respect is in short supply in the Mexico of today, led by business-oriented entrepreneurs speeding along the free-trade highway.

But respect is what Ruiz has always given the Indians who make up his diocese. For 34 years, he has preached self-determination to his largely poor congregation in San Cristobal de las Casas. Twenty years ago, when San Cristobal ordinances prohibited Indians from walking on sidewalks or selling in the city’s marketplace, Ruiz defiantly walked with them through the city. Later, he drove to remote villages to give Maya Indians confession, and took them by bus to see the ruins of ancient temples built by their ancestors.

For decades this behavior earned him only contempt from the government. Now, with Mexico shaken by war within its borders, officials have no choice but to listen when Ruiz tells them outright that they are to blame for the misery that gave rise to the Chiapas violence. Still, Ruiz downplays what he has accomplished. “I don’t think you can praise me for doing anything at all good here,” he says. “If I had done better maybe we would have avoided the bloodshed before.”

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