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The Cristero War

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On July 31, 1926, the bishops halted all worship services in Mexico. Today, an ardent Catholic website, The Angelus, says the step was unprecedented in Catholic history, and presumably was "intended to push the Mexicans to revolt."

It worked. On Aug. 23, 1926, about 400 armed Catholics barricaded themselves in a Guadalajara church and fought a gun battle with federal troops, costing 18 lives. The following day, soldiers stormed a Sahuayo church, killing its priest and vicar.

Catholic rebellions erupted in numerous places. Rene Garza, leader of the Mexican Association of Catholic Youth, called for general insurrection, declaring that "the hour of victory belongs to God." Volunteer bands attacked federal facilities and army posts, shouting "Long live Christ the king! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!" The rebels called themselves Cristeros fighters for Christ.

Mexican bishops refused to oppose the rebellion, and quietly approved it. Two priests became guerrilla commanders. One, Aristeo Pedroza, was prim and moral. The other, Jose Vega, was a drinker and womanizer. Three other priests became gunfighters. Many others became covert activists.

Father Vega led a raid on a train, and his brother was killed in the attack. In revenge, the priest had the train cars doused with gasoline and torched, killing 51 civilian passengers inside. The massacre soured public support for the uprising. The government expelled Catholic bishops from the country. After another engagement, Vega ordered all federal prisoners stabbed to death, to save ammunition. The priest later was killed in a raid.

An estimated 50,000 Catholic men became guerrillas, and thousands of Catholic women joined "St. Joan of Arc" support brigades. The rebels began defeating federal units, and controlled large sections of Mexico. Some Catholic army officers mutinied in behalf of the religious insurgents.

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico launched negotiations to end the conflict. His effort was damaged, however, because President Calles was scheduled to be succeeded by moderate President-elect Alvaro Obregon but a Catholic fanatic assassinated Obregon.

Eventually, talks brought a cease-fire. The Catholic Church was allowed to keep its buildings, and priests were allowed to live in them.

The Cristero War took about 90,000 lives: 56,882 on the government side, plus some 30,000 Cristeros, plus civilians.

On May 21, 2000, the Vatican conferred sainthood on 23 Cristero figures: 20 priests and three laymen. (Normally, each canonization requires evidence of at least two miracles, but the church lowers this standard for "martyrs," so the number of proclaimed miracles in the Cristero War may be less than 46.) On Nov. 20, 2005, thirteen others were designated martyrs and beatified, advancing toward sainthood.

On the government side, no glories were proclaimed for those who struggled and won at least a partial victory against domination by the clergy.

For freethinkers, the message of the Cristero War is clear: Religion is dangerous, laced with the potential for violence (as evidenced by deadly 2006 Muslim eruptions over European cartoons of the Prophet). Over-strong governmental attempts to subdue it can impel believers into irrational slaughter. A wiser course is to maintain separation of church and state, patiently waiting for advances in education and science to erode public support for supernaturalism.

(from Free Inquiry, April-May 2007)

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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