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SUSPICION, HOPE FOCUS ON MEXICAN BISHOP

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Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz became an instant object of both suspicion and hope when Maya Indian rebels launched a New Year's Day uprising in southern Chiapas state.

Wealthy landowners wondered aloud if he or his priests had played a role in the rebellion that continues today. The government accused Catholic lay workers of helping organize the Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels.And his supporters, including the impoverished Indians he has defended for decades, hoped he could play a mediating role to end the bloodshed.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari on Wednesday declared a cease-fire and said soldiers were ordered not to fire unless they came under attack.

Ruiz said he understands why the Indians felt the need to take up arms, but he opposes the violence and denies any involvement by himself or his priests.

"There is a tendency to blame the . . . religious people," Ruiz, 69, said last week in response to the government charges.

"But it is the source of the problem that has to be taken care of. The church raises the consciousness of individuals. Then, if they make a historic decision, that's their option."

Activist clergymen such as Ruiz have played important roles throughout Latin American history as they have defended the rights of the dispossessed and gained the disdain of those in power.

It was a Roman Catholic priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo, who issued the cry for Mexican independence in 1810, launching the battle that freed Mexico from Spanish rule.

During the 16th century, another Catholic priest, Bartolome de las Casas - after whom San Cristobal is named - waged a campaign against atrocities committed by the Spanish conquistadors on the native population.

The Rev. Jesus Villalobos, who runs the Don Bosco Youth Center and is parish priest to the Indians who live in the city's south side, said the church has always had an active role in Indian rights.

About 170 Indians have sought temporary refuge at the center since last week, when military planes strafed their mountain villages in an attempt to flush out rebels. No injuries or deaths were reported.

"Anywhere there are indigenous people to defend, the Mexican church tends to be more active," Villalobos said Tuesday as he stood on the playground where children played on swings and young women in traditional dress sat in the shade, nursing their babies and chatting in their native language.

"The church is also active in indigenous communities in Chihuahua and Oaxaca states," he added. "And a lot of people don't like that."

Because of their defense of the poor, Ruiz and his activist priests have received death threats. They've long been a thorn in the side of wealthy landholders, the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Chiapas, one of Mexico's most impoverished and violent states.

The clergymen say they have responsibility to defend parishioners in a state where 31 percent of the 3.2 million residents are illiterate, 20 percent of the children do not attend school and one out of every four people is a non-Spanish-speaking Indian.

Ruiz is hated by many government officials for his diocese's human rights center, which docu-ments abuses against the poor in the state infamous for its mistreatment of the Indian peasantry.

Last fall, there were rumors that the Mexican government was pressuring the Vatican to move Ruiz to another region. News reports said the move came after Pope John Paul II visited the Yucatan in August and Ruiz gave the pontiff a pastoral document expressing concern about the PRI's alleged control of elections.

The government denied the charges. Ruiz only said that he would go wherever the church sent him.