Reporting from Mexico City—For 40 years as a bishop in Mexico's impoverished Chiapas state, Samuel Ruiz championed the rights of the long-suffering Maya Indians who dominate the lush region. He learned their languages and adopted their customs into Roman Catholic practice.
He also made powerful enemies among rich landowners, Mexican governments and even the Vatican. He mediated the Zapatista peasant revolt of the 1990s and was both praised for helping to avoid wider bloodshed and criticized for supposedly inciting the rebels in the first place.
Ruiz died Monday in Mexico City after a long illness and complications from diabetes, church officials announced. He was 86.
"He always understood that his work was from a church that served the world, not a church that kept silent and made deals with the powerful," said Bishop Raul Vera, who worked at Ruiz's side in the Chiapas capital, San Cristobal de las Casas, for five years.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Ruiz "worked to build a Mexico that was more just, egalitarian, dignified and free of discrimination, where indigenous communities could have a voice and their rights and freedoms respected by all."
"His death is a great loss for Mexico," Calderon said.
Samuel Ruiz Garcia was born Nov. 3, 1924, in the conservative silver-mining Mexican state of Guanajuato. He was ordained as a priest in 1949, at the age of 24, in Rome, where he studied at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University. Eleven years later he was made a bishop and sent to Chiapas, in southernmost Mexico.
Initially, his plan was to change the ways of the indigenous communities. But, Ruiz recalled in 1999 at a ceremony marking his retirement, they changed him.
It was also a period of great change in the Roman Catholic Church. Reformers inspired by the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965 sought to make the church more accessible to native populations, a trend especially strong in Latin America where "liberation theology," which favors political activism on behalf of the poor, took root (before being reined in by Pope John Paul II).
Embracing that movement, Ruiz organized a network of rural catechists, or lay Bible teachers, who fanned out across Chiapas to even the most remote hamlets, allowing Indians to participate in church worship in ways never before possible to them.
"Peace for a Christian is an ongoing task; but peace goes hand in hand with justice," Ruiz told The Times in 1998. "There can be no peace if there is no justice. Justice means bringing down from their throne those who are privileged and elevating those who are humble to the same heights."
Often argumentative and unafraid to show anger, the outspoken Ruiz was known affectionately by his parishioners as "tatic," a word meaning "father" in the Tzotzil dialect. Rumpled and balding, Ruiz frequently wore a miter and stole decorated with the brightly colorful embroidery typical of the region.
His promotion of the rights and culture of the indigenous put him on a collision course with the local land barons and entrenched corrupt governments that exploited them. He once said he had received more death threats than he could count. In 1993 several Vatican officials attempted to force him to resign.
The following year, however, on Jan. 1, 1994, the Zapatista rebellion exploded. Leftist Zapatista rebels from the jungle-covered hills of Chiapas took on the Mexican army to demand equal treatment for indigenous Mexicans and democratic reforms. At least 145 people were killed in 12 days of fighting.
Ruiz was the mediator between the Zapatistas and the government. Eventually, after much back and forth and, at one point, a hunger strike by the bishop, a truce of sorts was declared. Many in Mexico saw Ruiz as overly sympathetic to the Zapatistas; he said he supported their demands but not their use of violence.
"Their strength did not come from military might but from the power they had to organize the people of Mexico, not only Chiapas, into a more democratic society," Ruiz told The Times.
Tensions in Chiapas involving politics, land disputes and religious differences festered for years. Pro-government paramilitaries formed ostensibly to counter the Zapatistas. In November 1997, Ruiz survived an ambush in an area controlled by the paramilitaries; three associates accompanying him were wounded.
Six weeks later, the deadliest massacre since the Zapatista rebellion took place in a small Chiapas village where pro-government attackers using guns and machetes killed 45 unarmed peasants, most of them women and children. Ruiz mournfully and angrily led the funeral Mass.
Ruiz turned 75 at the end of 1999, the mandatory retirement age for bishops. The pope sometimes makes exceptions, but not in his case. Ruiz retired in 2000 and remained bishop emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas until his death.
Ruiz's remains were being transported to San Cristobal de las Casas on Monday afternoon, and a funeral will take place in the city's majestic colonial cathedral Wednesday.