2003 VOICELESS AWARD: Samuel Ruiz, Bishop Eméritasof San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México

Samuel Ruiz was born on the 3rd November, 1924, in Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. After entering the seminary in 1937, he was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1949. After further study in Rome, Ruiz was appointed professor and rector of the seminary in Leon, Guanajuato. In 1959, he was appointed bishop. He was the first appointed bishop in San Cristobel de las Casas, Chiapas. Chiapas is a state in the southern part of Mexico characterized by extreme poverty and where 80% of the population is indigenous. Soon after arriving in Chiapas, Ruiz set about learning some of the indigenous languages. Samuel Ruiz spoke many times of how shortly after being ordained bishop, he saw the face of Christ in the indigenous people he met, and how these meetings awoke in him a new and more profound understanding of the word of God in our everyday lives.

During the 1960s and 1970s Samuel Ruiz became a prophetic voice in the Catholic Church. He actively participated in the Conferencias del Episcopado Latino Americano in Medillin in 1968 and in Puebla in 1979, and the same time was very involved in recognizing and encouraging the participation of the various indigenous groups in the pastoral work of the Catholic Church in Chiapas. He also encouraged ecumenical collaboration among the different churches of the region in order to promote and defend indigenous rights.

In 1982 Samuel Ruiz became involved in supporting the thousands of Guatemalans who sought refuge in Chiapas from the violent repression of the Guatemalan military during this time. The dioceses of Chiapas would host an average of 44,000 refugees during the 1980s. As a result of this work, as well as his work with the indigenous of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz began to receive worldwide recognition for his work.

In 1994, an indigenous rebellion led by the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) burst onto the Mexican and world scene. As a ceasefire was established between the EZLN and the Mexican military, Samuel Ruiz was invited to be mediator between the two sides.

Samuel Ruiz’s prophetic voice has brought with it considerable risk. He has survived assassination attempts, and been put under tremendous pressure by those in the political as well as religious hierarchy to resign or tome down his opinions.

In 2000, after 40 years of service, Samuel Ruiz retired as bishop of San Cristobel de las Casas before 18,000 members of the dioceses, pastoral agents, and national and international delegations.

Although officially retired, the two time nominee for the Nobel Peace prize continues to work and lecture throughout the world for human rights, especially those of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America.

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