Three Christians in southern Mexico jailed on Monday (Jan. 3) were released Thursday afternoon (Jan. 6), according to news reports.

In the village of San Pedro Chimaltepec, near San Juan Mazatlan Mixe in eastern Oaxaca state, local authorities had jailed Bonifacio Martínez Sánchez, Donato Martínez Sánchez and Gerino Hernández Martínez for declining to help pay for the festival of a “traditionalist” mix of Catholic and indigenous religion last month, according to pastor Cipriano Gazca Maldonado of the area’s Emmanuel Mission Center Church.

They were released after leaders of Defense of Human Rights of the Peoples of Oaxaca (DDHPO) called government officials at various levels, and the Oaxaca Secretary General of Government’s office spoke at length with village officials, El Universal Oaxaca reported Thursday evening.

At a press conference at the offices of the DDHPO in Oaxaca de Juarez on Tuesday (Jan. 4), Pastor Gazca Maldonado said the three Christians broke no laws in declining to contribute to the patron saint festival, according to Mexican daily La Jornada. They were held incommunicado, further violating their human rights, he said.

The pastor added that they were jailed on orders of the mayor, Demetrio Isidoro Jiménez, and another village official, Sosimo Victorino Marquez.

“Unfortunately, in San Pedro Chimaltepec this is not the first time the authorities by orders of the people have arrested someone who doesn’t belong to their religion,” Pastor Gazca Maldonado said. “Last Nov. 21, Ruperto Domínguez Teodoro, a member of Emmanuel Mission Center Church, was arrested and also expelled from the community without higher authorities doing anything about it.”

“They haven’t committed any crime,” Pastor Gazca Maldonado said, according to El Universal Oaxaca. “They were jailed for not paying the festival dues of last Dec. 18.”

His church has also suffered religiously motivated theft, with intruders stealing keyboards and speakers among other items, he said.

The “traditionalist” religion of the indigenous people in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region commonly includes drunken festivals honoring pagan idols that Protestant Christians eschew. In a misuse of Mexico’s “Uses and Customs” law designed to protect indigenous culture, local caciques (political “bosses”) cite local regulations requiring villagers to contribute fees toward and participate in the festivals.

Christian attorneys note that this misuse of Mexico’s “Uses and Customs” laws violates the guarantee of religious freedom in Article 24 of Mexico’s constitution.

Similar cases of persecution have happened in neighboring Chiapas, Durango and other states. The Mexican Senate passed reforms in 2017 that penalize religious discrimination with prison terms of three years, according to El Universal Oaxaca.

Mexico was ranked 37th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

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