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MEXICO CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Mexican bishop Miguel Ángel Alba Díaz has asked the president of his country to issue an apology for murders and persecution of the Catholic Church committed by the Mexican government in the 1920s.
Bishop Alba Díaz, who presides over the diocese of La Paz in Baja California, was responding to repeated demands by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that the Catholic Church and the government of Spain beg forgiveness for the evangelization and conquest of Mexico in 1521.
Most recently, the president's wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, visited Pope Francis Oct. 10 to repeat the request, even requesting the loan of several precious documents from the Vatican Library to be displayed next year during a commemoration of the tragic encounter of the Aztecs and Spaniards at Tenochtitlan — the future Mexico City.
Bishop Alba Díaz noted Gutiérrez Müller's visit to the Vatican and said during a Sunday homily: "I would also invite the government of the nation to beg forgiveness to more recent deeds, for the law, the 1917 Constitution and the Calles Law, which violated the religious liberty of 90% of the people, of its own citizens, and forced Christians underground."
While conflict between the Catholic Church and the Mexican government dates well before the 1910–1920 Revolution to the 1860s when Mexican President Benito Juárez seized Church properties, it was during the Cristero War (1926–1929) when Catholics took up arms against President Plutarco Elías Calles.
The anti-Catholic measures he enforced included the murder of priests, destruction of churches and the slaughter of anti-government Catholics, including children. Rebels against the government became known as Cristeros because of their battle cry: "Long live Christ the King!"
In his homily Oct. 10, Bp. Alba Díaz went on to say that he apologizes:
for all those summarily murdered by authorities during the Cristiada [Cristero War] ... because many Mexican rebels against that unjust law took up arms and provoked a war that left much blood and much poverty. Let's not go back to 1500; this happened in 1900. That we do have to ask for forgiveness.
The bishop recalled the words of St. Paul to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Anyone who causes divisions: rich and poor, fifis (bourgeoise) and chairos (left-wingers), is from the Devil. Whoever likes to divide, who advances the principle of "divide and conquer," that is the meaning of the word "diabolos" — the one who divides, causes conflict, who pits women against men, the feminist revolt, poor against the rich, Marxist revolution. ... We must think upon unity today, and for that we must seek reconciliation; instead of looking to the past, look to the future.
The Revolution that began in 1910 led to the overthrow of President Porfirio Díaz. Thousands of Mexicans were swept up in a brutal war alongside various revolutionary chieftains, such as Francisco "Pancho" Villa, Plutarco Elías Calles, Venustiano Carranza, and Emiliano Zapata. Carranza's constitutionalist faction became dominant, which resulted in the promulgation of the Constitution of 1917.
The charter incorporated Marxist precepts and doubled down on restrictions on the Catholic Church dating from the country's 1857 Constitution. Articles 3, 5, 24, 27, and 130 restricted the role of the Catholic Church in Mexico.
For example, Article 3 forbade all religious instruction in public and private schools, as well as prohibiting ministers of religion from helping the poor, evangelization or even engaging in scientific research. In addition, all houses of worship became government property.
It was Article 130 that caused the greatest consternation to Catholic hierarchs. Article 130 denied all legal status to the Church while limiting the number of ministers of religion and prohibiting all foreign-born ministers of religion. Priests were denied the right of assembly, the right to vote, and the right of free speech. Religious publications were forbidden from criticizing the government. However, the article was irregularly enforced in the country.
In 1926, President Calles passed a law that specifically enforced the provisions of Article 130. This included penalties for priests and others violating Article 130. The wearing of clerical garb, for instance, was punishable by a fine of 500 pesos (approximately $250 in U.S. money of the time). Any priest who dared to criticize the government could be imprisoned for five years, while some states enacted harsher laws. For example, the government of the state of Chihuahua allowed only one priest to serve the Catholics there. Calles seized Church properties, closed monasteries, religious schools and convents while also expelling foreign priests.
In August 1926, Mexico's bishops suspended all public worship and endorsed a boycott of public transportation and entertainment. Catholics refused to work in public schools. Led by groups such as the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty and the Knights of Columbus, fervent Catholic peasants gathered behind the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe and rose up in arms against the government, especially in the central and western region. The clash with government troops lasted until 1929 with a truce brokered by the United States. The Catholic bishops, with support from the Vatican, ended their support of the Cristero rebels, even while persecution of Catholics by the government continued well into the 1940s.
Between 1926 and 1934, at least 40 priests were murdered. While Mexico had once boasted 4,500 priests before the Cristero War, by 1934 only 334 were allowed by the government to serve a population of 15 million people. In fact, by 1935, there were 17 states where there were no priests at all. It was not until 1938 that the Calles Law was repealed. However, many official and unofficial restrictions of the Church and clerics continued until the reforms of the 1990s.
The Catholic rebellion against Mexico's government yielded numerous martyrs. Among them were Blessed José Ramón Miguel Pro, a priest who eluded authorities by using disguises and safe houses until being arrested on trumped-up charges of an assassination attempt. Denied a trial, Fr. Pro faced a firing squad in Mexico City in 1927. Before being shot, he professed his innocence and blessed his executioners. Raising his arms in imitation of the crucified Christ, he shouted "Viva Cristo Rey!" (Long live Christ the King!), the battle cry of the Catholic rebels. When the volley from the firing squad failed to kill him outright, an officer then shot him at point-blank range while President Calles' official photographer recorded the event for posterity.
The first martyr of the Cristiada to be declared a saint is José Sánchez del Río, a 14-year-old boy. Witnesses in 1929 saw that he was brutally tortured by Mexican troops on the way to a cemetery as he wept and prayed. At a grave already prepared for him, he was stabbed and hanged by his torturers. When he was asked what he wanted them to tell his parents, he replied: “Long live Christ the King! Tell them I will see them in Heaven!” He was thereafter shot in the head. His ordeal was portrayed in the Hollywood movie For Greater Glory.
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