By David Agren
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — In anticipation of Pope Francis’ Feb. 17 visit to this border city, an unlikely hashtag appeared: #PopeInJuarez.
The hashtag refers to Ciudad Juarez and the pope’s arrival in a city once considered “murder capital of the world.” It has seen a 92 percent drop in the homicide rate since the depth of its drug-related violence in 2010.
However, the city’s namesake, former President Benito Juarez, once feuded with the Catholic Church and authored the 1850s reform laws that stripped the church of its properties, power in legal matters and even prohibited priests and nuns from wearing their habits in public.
Pope Francis’ visit to the country and Ciudad Juarez demonstrate the distance church-state relations have moved in Mexico, which only established relations with the Vatican in 1992. Already in the papal trip, politicians in the states the pope has visited have been eager to appear in public with him and published photos of their encounters on social media and state-subsidized media outlets. That the hashtag would appear in its Spanish form, #PapaEnJuarez, would appear to show a lessening of the anti-clerical attitudes, too — though some of it could be attributed to ignorance. The English-language hashtag appeared to emanate from neighboring El Paso, Texas.
Juarez is one of modern Mexico’s most celebrated figures. His image appears on the 20-peso note, while streets across the country are named after him, along with the Mexico City international airport and even the presidential airplane. He is revered in Mexico for leading it through the French intervention of the 1860s, heading the factions of liberals battling conservative forces in the country and becoming the first indigenous president, although his track record on indigenous land issues is considered unfriendly to indigenous peoples, said Ilan Semo, political historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.
The phrase, “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace,” is attributed to Juarez and commonly quoted.
A less-flattering phrase also attributed to Juarez, “For my friends, grace and justice, for my enemies, the law,” has come to sum up Mexico’s powerful presidency and lack of the rule of law.
Juarez was born into poverty in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca state, was orphaned at a young age, moved to Oaxaca City, was taken in by a lay Franciscan and studied in a seminary. He became a lawyer and later, a five-term president.
He’s best known for the Reform Laws, however, which were interpreted as an attack on the church.
“The state stopped being a religious state,” Semo said. “Previously, you had to be Catholic to a Mexican.”
Other historians say Juarez and the liberals acted without consulting the church.
“There was never dialogue,” said Father Manuel Olimon Nolasco, a priest in the Diocese of Tepic and professionally trained historian. “This is the big difference between Mexican liberalism and the liberalism of other countries. … In the other countries, there was a dialogue with the Vatican. That never happened in Mexico.”
Conservatives, backed by the church, proceeded in 1863 to invite Austrian Archduke Maximilian, backed by French forces, to serve as emperor. The times lent itself to such a scenario: The United States was stuck in the Civil War and unable to enforce the Monroe Doctrine of no European colonizing in the Americas.
With the end of the Civil War, French forces left Mexico, leaving Maximilian on his own. He was captured by forces led by Juarez and executed in 1867.
Parts of the Reform Laws remain intact, although the church is now allowed to own property, religious dress is permitted and the church enjoys more freedoms than before.
Ordinary people, Semo says, appear OK with the pope visiting Mexico, but still express discomfort with the church playing a large role in politics — suggesting the Juarez legacy still looms.
As for the church itself, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City tried to rehabilitate the relationship with Juarez in 2006, suggesting Mexico needed another figure like him for the presidency.
“Juarez was always Catholic, never ashamed of being Catholic, was a practicing Catholic. I hope another Juarez becomes (president,)” he said.
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Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero