When Blood Was Spilled in the Name of Christ

By Awake! writer in Mexico

“At Mass the priests would shout from the pulpits: ‘Sons of the holy Mother Church, to the combat! The government wants to take over the churches!’”​—Pedro Rosales Vargas, an eyewitness.

WHY would religious people take up arms in defense of their faith? What can happen when people resort to violence to defend their religion? Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion, also called the Cristeros​—named after those who took part in it—​gives insight into these questions.

The Enciclopedia Hispánica explains: “Cristeros is the name given to Mexican Catholics who rebelled against President Plutarco Elías Calles in 1926 because of measures that he took against the church, such as closing down religious centers and buildings.” Originally it was the government that labeled the rebels Cristeros because of their war cry, “Long live Christ the King!” The roots of the conflict, however, go back further.

Roots of the Conflict

The Reform laws, first passed in the 1850’s, were finally ratified in 1917. Among the laws’ objectives was “nationalizing real estate that was property of the church.” (Historia de México) The government introduced these laws to restrict the accumulation of wealth and land by the Catholic Church. Their ratification was quickly followed by strong protests from the clergy. The government responded by arresting a number of priests.

One of the goals of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) was to provide land for the poor. Thus, the new laws proposed confiscating land from large landholders and distributing it among the poor in what was called agrarian reform. The clergy in general desired to intervene in this matter. After all, the new laws affected influential clergymen who owned large tracts of land. The church claimed that it did not oppose the redistribution of land, but it promoted a plan that differed from the government’s proposal.

Some people, however, believed that the church was only out to protect the interests of large landowners, including rich members of the clergy. There were, on the other hand, some priests, known as agrarians, who favored distributing the land among the poor. The conflict within the church only served to widen the breach between the church and the government.

Early in 1925, Plutarco Elías Calles, who had just assumed office as president of the Mexican Republic, began to apply  the church-related articles of the new constitution with severity. For instance, he expelled many foreign Catholic priests from Mexico. In addition, the archbishop of Mexico was arrested after he declared that the clergy would fight the anticlerical articles of the constitution. Some church-owned buildings were also confiscated. Many people believed that the purpose of these actions was to prevent large sums of Mexican money from ending up in Rome.

In July 1926 the Mexican bishops themselves ordered the suspension of religious services in the churches. The government regarded this step as a political ruse intended to incite the masses against the government. In any case, suspending religious services lit the fuse that ignited the tragic Cristero Rebellion.

War Breaks Out

Thousands of Catholics, incited by their priests, fought in defense of their religion. As their standard, they carried with them an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Although some Cristeros expected the hierarchy to rise to the defense of the church, the great majority of bishops and priests did not get involved in the conflict for fear of retribution by the government. Rather, most sought refuge in the homes of wealthy families, staying out of the fray while the common people carried on a violent religious uprising.

Some priests, however, actively supported one side or the other. According to the book The Cristiada, (Volume 1, The War of the Cristeros), some 100 Catholic priests opposed the Cristeros, while 40 actively supported the armed struggle. An additional five priests actually joined in the fighting.

The consequences of the rebellion were calamitous. In many areas extreme poverty resulted. Moreover, accounts abound of young men being forcibly taken away by the Cristeros to fight. There were also reports of families’ receiving constant visits from Cristeros and federal troops alike demanding food. And there were reports of rapes by both sides and the loss of loved ones.

 Both the Cristeros and the government’s army were guilty of outrages, including the killing of many people who had nothing to do with the conflict. In the end the cold figures tell the story​—at least 70,000 were killed during the three years of armed struggle.

The War Suspended

After a formal agreement was reached between the Catholic Church and the government in June 1929, hostilities were suspended, and by August fighting had stopped. But the Cristeros fighters had not been included in the negotiations, and they could not understand how the church could submit to what many regarded as an enemy of heavenly authority. Frustrated but submissive to the orders of the clergy, the Cristeros at last surrendered and returned to their homes. The government promised to be more tolerant and to allow Mass to resume. However, the laws restricting religions remained unchanged.

The Cristero Rebellion has been characterized at times as an attempt by some in the Catholic Church to recover the power the church had enjoyed in the era before the Reform laws. Despite the war, these laws continued in force in Mexico until 1992, when a law affecting religious associations was passed. There is still considerable distrust of religious associations. Priests and religious ministers are still prohibited from participating in politics, and although religious organizations may now own property, church property acquired prior to 1992 continues to belong to the government. Nevertheless, the law has not prevented many priests in Mexico from getting involved in political matters.

What Was Accomplished?

Did taking up arms to defend their faith accomplish lasting good for the Cristeros? María Valadez, who survived the turmoil, now says: “I believe that all the slaughter was in vain. It was stupid.” Pedro Rosales Vargas, quoted in the introduction, observed regarding the war’s sad consequences: “People killed their fellow man, even those of their own religion. That is how I became an orphan​—they murdered my father.”

The hard lessons of the Cristero Rebellion have not prevented religious sentiment from fueling further conflicts, such as in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia. Only practicing the pure religion of Christ can prevent such tragedy. Jesus commanded his followers to stay separate from politics, to be “no part of the world.” (John 17:16; 18:36) He told the apostle Peter, who tried through force to prevent Jesus’ arrest: “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.”​—Matthew 26:52.

How Do Christians Respond to Oppression?

Does this mean that if true Christians find their freedom to worship threatened they should do nothing about it? No. When the first-century Christians were persecuted, on several occasions they defended themselves through the legal resources available to them. They appealed to the courts. Though at times they were imprisoned, they neither gave up their faith nor compromised their political neutrality.​—Acts 5:27-42.

Under no circumstances did early Christians take up arms to establish their religious rights by means of violence. True Christians do not kill people of any other religion, much less those of their own faith. Rather, they adhere to their Master’s teaching: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.”​—John 13:35.

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A priest flanked by two Cristero fighters

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President Plutarco E. Calles

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Some of the Cristero leaders

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© (Inventory image number: 451110) SINAFO-Fototeca Nacional