Spanish Muslim mission grows in Mexico

Links to Mayan, Moorish roots survive centuries of


Susan Ferriss - Cox Washington Bureau

Monday, August 12, 2002

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico --- Every weekday

morning, children at an Islamic school in this city

sit cross-legged at low desks and rock in time as they

recite the Quran in Arabic. 

The older girls' heads are wrapped in obligatory

scarves, and all the children are required to leave

their shoes at the door. 

But this isn't Pakistan, Iran or an Arab state. 

This Islamic ''madrasa'' is part of a small but

growing community of several hundred Muslim converts

in San Cristobal de las Casas, a Mexican tourist

community in southern Chiapas state better known as

the gateway to this region's modern Maya Indian


The new adherents to Islam in Chiapas are almost all

Maya who were once Protestants, a choice that made

their families renegades for several previous decades

in many Catholic indigenous communities. 

And curiously, the proselytizers are Spanish converts

who arrived in 1995 and hail from the southern

province of Granada, the last stronghold of the Muslim

Moors of Spain before their defeat by Christian

soldiers in 1492. 

With about 40 families in their fold now, the Spanish

missionaries and their Indian followers envision

spreading their movement to the rest of Latin America.

The irony of the Spanish involvement is not lost on

the Maya. But the converts say they've embraced Islam

as deliverance from cultural oppression that began

with the Spanish Conquest of the 1500s. 

''Five hundred years ago, they came to destroy us.

Five hundred years later, other Spaniards came to

return a knowledge that was taken away from us,'' said

Anastasio Gomez Gomez, a 21-year-old Maya who now

calls himself Ibrahim. 

He sees no contradiction in being a Muslim and an


''This is the family I never had before,'' Gomez

explained, with a blissful expression. 

''When you become a Muslim, all your past beliefs are

erased. It's like being reborn.'' 

The Spanish missionaries first came into town just

after the 1994 armed uprising staged by Mexico's rebel

group, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. 

''I went to a Zapatista meeting, and it was really

boring,'' said the missionaries' leader, Aureliano

Perez, 49, who converted to Islam about 20 years ago

in Spain after a trip to Morocco. He is now known as

Emir Mohammed Nafia. 

Philanthropic funding 

With funding they say comes from philanthropists in

Arab states and other Muslim nations, Perez's mission

in just six years has built housing for members, the

madrasa --- which the government hasn't yet accredited

--- a small mosque and a carpentry shop where some of

the Maya male converts work. 

The Spanish women offer a free sewing workshop for

girls in the area, and the group also runs a downtown

pizzeria in a prime location. 

The missionaries don't draw attention to it, but the

community is tied to the 30-year-old Murabitun

international Sufi Islamic movement, whose leader is a

controversial Scot named Ian Dallas, now known as

Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi. 

Dallas, who is in his 60s, has been eviscerated in the

Scottish press, which reported that he produced tracts

and speeches considered anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler. 

Perez brushed off any suggestion that his mission is

pushing hate. 

The mission in Chiapas, Perez said, was set up for

''social reconstruction,'' not conflict, which is

common in this volatile, socially unequal state. 

Sipping carrot juice and wearing an inconspicuous tie

and jacket, Perez said his group tries to keep a low

profile in Mexico, especially since the terrorist

attacks in the United States ''cast a black cloud on


Townsfolk have expressed little hostility toward the

Muslims, Perez said. But he is well aware that some in

town dismiss the missionaries as latter-day


"They say, 'You're Spaniards and just want to get rid

of the Indians,' " he said with a shake of his head.

"Well, I come from the civilization that the Spanish

Christians destroyed. I'm not really Spanish." 

Talk, eat, pray together 

Followers of Islam probably number in the low

thousands in Mexico, whether they were born into the

religion from Arab immigrant families or converted. 

Anastasio Gomez, or Ibrahim, said he had only heard

about Islam from watching news reports about the

Persian Gulf War. 

Now he's married to the daughter of one of the Spanish

missionaries, works at the pizzeria and is eager to

use his ability to speak Tzotzil, his Mayan language,

to recruit more followers. 

''I'd like to have more contact with my people, but

because of my young age, they won't listen to me,'' he

said dejectedly. 

Gomez converted to Islam after his father threw him

out of the house in San Cristobal de las Casas for

failing to read his Bible, and he was introduced to

the Spaniards. 

He later helped convert his father, a former

evangelical preacher. 

Gomez's father, Manuel Gomez, had become a Protestant

in the early 1970s and was expelled from his native

town, Chamula, just outside San Cristobal de las


Over the years, tens of thousands of Protestant Maya

from Chamula have also been expelled by leaders who

run their own quasi-Catholic church. 

After their expulsion, the Gomez family wandered

spiritually, trying out a number of different sects. 

''I spent 35 years as an evangelical, and it never

changed my life,'' said Manuel Gomez, 51, who is now

Mohammed. ''Here we talk together. We eat together. We

pray together.'' 

The elder Gomez has a full-time job, too, in the

carpentry shop. 

He and his son have even gone on the hajj --- the

obligatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca --- courtesy of

wealthy Arab sponsors. 

A couple of years ago, five dissident Maya families

broke away from the Spanish missionaries and hooked up

with the Islamic Cultural Center of Mexico, another

small organization that is run, oddly enough, by

another British citizen. 

''They said they felt a bit discriminated against,''

said British-born Omar Weston, who grew up in Mexico

and became a Muslim while living Florida.


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