For many years, the suffering of Evangelical Christians in rural villages of southern Mexico went unnoticed except by persecution watchdog groups like Christian Solidarity Worldwide, International Christian Concern (ICC), Open Doors, and Voice of the Martyrs.

In what ICC called a “historic first,” 13 U.S. lawmakers on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission sent a letter to Mexico’s attorney general, Arely Gonzalez, calling for prosecution of religious freedom violators.

In villages in four Mexican states, syncretists or “traditionalist” Catholics, who have blended Catholicism with their indigenous pagan practices, have persecuted evangelicals at least since the 1970s, said ICC advocacy director Isaac Six, who noted more than 150 instances of persecution just in recent years.

Christians have been fired, driven into exile, and even imprisoned for years under false charges—especially in Chiapas, said Emily Fuentes, a spokeswoman for Open Doors. “Traditionalists” view their blended tribal and Catholic beliefs, rituals, and superstitions as part of their cultural identity, which is why they perceive evangelicalism as a threat, she said.

The persecution often starts out small, such as cutting off electricity or water supplies over a dispute such as paying into the village fund for religious festivals, Six said. Festival rituals often contain alcohol or drug use, prompting some evangelicals to refuse to participate, he added. Sometimes disagreements escalate to threats or violence.

Recently, authorities told Protestant convert Lauro Pérez Núñez to leave his village of La Chachalaca, in the district of Santiago Camotlán, Oaxaca, for violating the local “custom” of holding traditionalist beliefs, according to World Watch Monitor (WWM).

But no such crime exists—Mexico’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

“In the beginning there were about 16 families in the village that practiced [evangelical Christianity],” Núñez said. “But the accusations that we were against the beliefs of the majority, that we were attempting to go against the community, made many stop expressing their ideas.”

Officials imprisoned Núñez several times and demanded he recant his new faith.

“Since I did not accept, they told me that they would end up throwing me out of the village and they would no longer recognize me as a citizen,” he said. Local schools refused to teach his children.

In 2016, Núñez appealed and a district court ruled he could return home. But the community still insisted he leave. Locals threatened to kill him, and a mob surrounded his mother’s house, threatening to seize it if he did not flee.

Earlier cases were even more severe. In 1997, authorities arrested 79 men in the Acteal region of Chiapas for participating in a massacre. Many were evangelicals innocent of the crime. Some spent more than a decade in prison on false charges, according to Open Doors. The charity helped fight for the falsely accused, securing freedom for all but one by 2015. They were still not allowed to return home.

Six hopes the letter from U.S. legislators and a recent visit by David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, will “send a signal to Mexican officials that there is a diplomatic cost to ignoring these violations” and motivate them to act.

“We see this as a lack of political will, not a lack of political capacity,” he added.

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