Pope Francis has apologized to Mexico's indigenous peoples for the discrimination and injustice they have long suffered, as well as urged the world to learn from their wisdom in the face of the global environmental crisis.
"Some have considered your values, cultures, and traditions inferior. Others, dizzy with power, money, and the laws of the market, have stripped you of your lands and then contaminated it," the Pope said during a mass in the city of San Cristóbal, in the southern state of Chiapas, where 75 percent of the population is indigenous. "How well we would all do, to do some soul searching and learn to say sorry."
After a long pause, the Pope then said, "Sorry brothers."
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The Pope is at the mid-point in his six-day visit to Mexico that has also been marked by messages condemning corruption and the failure of the church hierarchy to pay attention to the suffering caused by the country's drug wars.
The Pope was always expected to put indigenous rights at the center of his homily in San Cristóbal. But the direct link he made between the failure to respect these rights and today's environmental challenges, added a contemporary twist to a situation that was initially brought to the world's attention by the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista guerrillas.
"We can no longer pretend to be deaf in the face of one of the greatest environmental crises in history," he said during the mass, returning to a favored theme of his papacy.
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"In this you have much to teach, to teach mankind," he told the predominantly indigenous crowd, many of them in traditional dress. "You know how to maintain a harmonious relationship with nature, and respect it as a source of food, a common home, and an altar for how to share resources among people."
The mass included readings in three different indigenous languages — Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Chol — while traditional xylophone-like marimbas provided music. The Pope wore a miter with a traditional indigenous design.
"He was essentially echoing Liberation Theology's call to build a kingdom of heaven here on Earth," Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said of the Pope's message. "A society characterized by Christian solidarity, fraternity, and social inclusion that serves as a steward of our sacred mother earth, which the Indians have [reputedly] done so well."
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Chestnut was alluding to the Catholic movement that preached that the poor should come first and, in some cases, became associated with left-wing guerrillas in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s.
The state's most prominent bishop, Samuel Ruiz, was Mexico's best-known member of the Liberation Theology movement. He dedicated the decades he spent at the head of the diocese in San Cristóbal, before retiring in 2000, trying to integrate indigenous communities and traditions into the local Church.
This made him appear sympathetic to the cause of the Zapatista rebels and their pipe-smoking and poetry-writing leader Subcomandante Marcos, as well as turned him into a hate figure among the conservative elite who considered him a communist.
On Monday Pope Francis went to visit Ruiz's tomb where he prayed. Later in the day he also formally decreed authorized that mass could now be said in nahuatl, Mexico's most-used indigenous language.
In the meantime, his message was already making some waves.
"The Pope came to tell us that the Mexican state should apologize, the way he did," indigenous activist Mardonio Carballo told VICE News. "I think it is a very important action in Mexico where most Mexicans, as well as the political class and the majority of the church, do not want to look at indigenous people."
But, he added, the Pope's message could end up having little impact in the end.
"What he said is historic, because of who he is," Carballo said. "But for there to be real change, there has to be a change of attitude towards indigenous people, and real political will to help them obtain justice after so many years of abuse and exploitation."
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Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten