Cities of GodBy CARLOS PUIG
MEXICO CITY — Saturday was a beautiful day in Monterrey, northeastern Mexico, and in the Plaza Zaragoza, just a few meters from City Hall, it was a cheerful one, too. Standing at a clear plexiglass podium, a woman of about 40 is making a speech. Human participation alone, she says, “does not have the ability to reverse the darkness”; only the light from faith in God can. “Which is why we are gathered here today, and I, Alicia Margarita Arellanes Cervantes, give Monterrey, Nuevo León, to our Lord Jesus Christ, so that his kingdom of peace and blessings may be established.”
“I open the doors of this municipality to God as the ultimate authority,” she adds. “Lord Jesus Christ, welcome to Monterrey, the house that we have built. This is your home Lord Jesus, Lord of Monterrey.” The people in the square say amen, applaud and cheer.
There is just one problem: Alicia Margarita Arellanes Cervantes may be the mayor of Monterrey, but clearly the city — Mexico’s third-largest and its wealthiest per capita — isn’t hers to give away.
As soon as the “Pray Monterrey!” event and Arellanes’s gift to God hit the news, other such pledges were revealed. It turns out that the mayors of Guadalupe and Juárez, two towns close to Monterrey, and of Ensenada, in Baja California, had already done the same.
Those grants were orchestrated by the Assembly of Pastors, an evangelical organization with chapters in several cities in northern Mexico. They’re a bid to gain ground among Christians: Only 6 percent of Mexicans call themselves evangelicals, compared with 82 percent who say they are Catholic, according to the last census.
Around 10,000 people attended the event in Monterrey, and it made the local evening news. That was the point, it seems: In a recent interview two evangelical leaders joked that they would keep on teaming up with politicians so long as that won them national attention, scandalized or not.
Evangelical churches have long proselytized in neighboring countries: Recent surveys put the number of Central Americans declaring themselves evangelicals at above 20 percent. But they may be in for disappointment here. The Cristero War, a bloody conflict between the government and catholic militias in the late 1920s, was triggered by the passing of laws prohibiting public displays of any religious faith. The Mexican Constitution is one of the most restrictive in the Western Hemisphere when it comes to limiting the place of religion in the public arena.Churches and their representatives are prohibited from any political activity. Priests have been allowed to vote only since 1994, but they still may not express any political view. The law also forbids municipal and federal authorities from attending “any official religious act of public worship” or any similar activity. Public religious celebrations require special permits, subject to approval by an under secretary for religious affairs who answers to the interior secretary.
And now, in response to the recent ceremonies granting cities to God, there have been calls in the press and among nongovernmental organizations to penalize both the magnanimous politicians and the evangelical churches they serve. It’s a sign the evangelicals may have overshot; certainly, they haven’t learned their lesson from the Catholic Church, which has been skillful at lobbying for its interests without causing too much scandal. Mexico was one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite places to visit, for example, and though he was welcomed by massive crowds here, nobody complained.
In an interview after her speech in Monterrey, Arellanes tried to deflect criticism by saying that when she gave the city to Jesus, she acted “as a private person not as the mayor” and that she is Catholic, not evangelical. She asked for tolerance for “her own beliefs.” Strange logic.
Less strange is that politicians like her would be eager to secure votes from every constituency and that emerging religions would associate with the powerful and the popular to gain exposure. Sometimes, though, as the event in Plaza Zaragoza, the combination ends up being as ridiculous — maybe even illegal.