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Samuel Ruíz García

Samuel Ruíz García was born in 1924, in the Mexican federal state of Guanajuato. His parents were half-breeds. After finishing a degree in theological studies at the Papal University Gregoriana in Rome and being awarded a PhD in theology and biblical science, he also took holy orders in Rome in 1949.

In 1960, Samuel Ruíz García became bishop of the southern Mexican diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas which is situated in Mexican Indian territory. He is thus one of the successors of the famous Dominican bishop Bartholome de Las Casas who already championed the rights of the indigenous population as early as the 16th century.

Bishop Ruíz, too, has been firmly committed to fighting for the rights of this oppressed and exploited ethnic group which constitutes more than 80% of the diocese's Christian population. He did this with such vehemence, that some have honoured him with the respectful title "Father", whereas others, particularly big land-owners and politicians, have been labelling him as "red bishop" or calling him a "traitor to his country". In 1994, there were even "wanted photographs" of the bishop, flyposted on electricity switch boxes and house walls, and, as he put it, murder threats have become an everyday occurrence.

The untiring champion of Mexican Indians' rights in the federal state of Chiapas has, however, also fallen out of favour with the church establishment. Denounced as a "follower of liberation theology", he was reproached by the Vatican's representative in Mexico, Papal Legate Girolamo Prigione, in 1993 of having made "mistakes in the fields of [church] doctrine and pastoral care" and was recommended to step down from his office. The probably most popular bishop in Mexico did, however, not follow this recommendation. Shortly before, Ruíz had written a strongly worded pastoral letter criticising the Mexican government's neo-liberalism, denouncing repeated election frauds in his country and urgently demanding an improvement of the Mexican Indians' economic situation.

When in 1994 the Mexican Indians in Chiapas rose in open rebellion, he strongly condemned the use of violence, but also expressed his understanding for the despair of the indigenous population who had organised in the "National Zapatist Liberation Army". It was a matter of course that Samuel Ruíz García offered his services as mediator between government and rebelling Mexican Indians. He even went on hunger strike in late 1994 in order to get the negotiations which had come to a deadlock moving again. The massive pressure exerted on the bishop becomes clear in the accusations levelled at him by influential economic and political circles in Mexico who claimed that he had provoked the unrest and damaged the country's reputation by raising the problem to an international level.

For some time there was even talk about him being removed from office by the Vatican. But this would have proved difficult because of the high standing the bishop has been enjoying in the population: After the first "reprimand", the diocese's clergy declared that questioning Ruíz García's pastoral work was tantamount to criticising the work of thousands of men and women who were working for a new evangelisation. Furthermore about 20,000 peasants wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II protesting against the threatened removal from office of their bishop. The Papal Nunciature in Mexico City was inundated with messages of solidarity with Ruíz García.

After 40 years as head of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, bishop Samuel Ruíz García, the beacon of hope for the indigenous population, retired from his office early in 2000. Because of his courageous commitment to peace and human rights, bishop Ruíz has faced immediate danger to his life. On November 5, 1997, there was an assault on him and suffragan bishop Raúl Vera López which failed, however. The persons behind this assault are most probably to be found in the ranks of the paramilitary group "Paz y Justicia" which has been fighting against the two bishops' peace initiatives for a long time. On January 24, 1998, there were telephone threats to murder bishop Ruíz. Some time ago, representatives of the diocese of San Cristóbal expressed the opinion that Samuel Ruíz García would be particularly endangered after his retirement from the bishopric, since then the Mexican government would no longer be immediately responsible for safeguarding his life.

The 76-year-old bishop emeritus is on of the outstanding personalities of the Catholic church in Latin America today. Numerous honours were conferred on him in recognition of his commitment to respect for human rights, including the honorary doctorate of the University of Tübingen, for his "passionate commitment to the defence of the rights of indigenous populations". Samuel Ruíz García was nominated for the Peace Nobel Prize several times, and in 1997 was honoured with the Martin Ennals Award and in 2000 with the UNESCO's Simon Bolivar Prize.

Samuel Ruíz García died after a long illness at a hospital in Mexico City on Monday, 24 January 2011 at the age of 86.

[January 2011]

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