MEXICO CITY (AP) — A crusading Roman Catholic priest who has defied drug cartels and corrupt police to protect Central American migrants said Wednesday that church authorities are trying to smother his activist work with migrants by assigning him to parish duties.
The Rev. Alejandro Solalinde has become well known in Mexico after enduring death threats for publicly denouncing drug gangs and police who rob and kidnap Central American migrants crossing Mexico to reach the United States.
But Solalinde's diocese said he is simply being asked to start operating within the normal parish structure, and run his migrant shelter more like a church ministry and less like a lone activist's non-governmental organization.
It's the first major public clash between the conservative Mexican church hierarchy and activist priests since the diocese of San Cristobal was told to curtail "Indian" church practices begun by Bishop Samuel Ruiz and hew to accepted doctrine in 2002.
Solalinde said his superior, Msgr. Oscar Campos, bishop of the Diocese of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, isn't interested in the kind of humanitarian work he considers his mission. He runs the "Hermanos en el Camino" shelter in Oaxaca state, where he has said the Zetas drug cartel, in league with corrupt police, has kidnapped and robbed migrants.
Solalinde's outspokenness is rare in a country where many fear to even name the Zetas, and he took a brief leave from the shelter in May after receiving death threats.
Solalinde said the bishop told him he would be assigned to be a parish priest, something Solalinde said would "bury me in bureaucracy, administrative tasks, ceremonies, and take away my full time dedication to the migrants."
"I know how to fight against the drug cartels, and corrupt officials and police, I know how to fight all of them, but I can't fight the church," Solalinde said. "If the church asks me to do this, the church is going to achieve what all the other forces haven't, which is to get me to leave, to leave the flock defenseless so they do what they want with them."
He also said the bishop had said he was grabbing too much attention; Solalinde has practically become the public face of Mexico's migrant protection movement.
The Rev. Jesus Gutierrez, the diocese spokesman, said Solalinde hasn't been asked to stop working with migrants, merely to integrate his activism into church activities.
"The bishop is asking him to join a parish as a parish priest, so that his activities are not disconnected from the church," Gutierrez said. "This has to be done within a parish, and not as it appears lately, as an individual activity."
Solalinde had previously been assigned for several years to the area near the border with Guatemala through an arrangement with the Mexican Bishops' Council. But he said that assignment is running out, and he will soon be under the authority of the local diocese.
Gutierrez said the diocese wants to keep helping migrants, "but our help is given in the name of Christ, not as a simple NGO."
"Our work isn't purely humanitarian, it is an integrated Christian work," including "food, prayer, Masses, a place to rest and sleep," the diocese spokesman said.
In a statement, Bishop Campos said the change "would in no way mean (his) leaving the shelter."
Solalinde said he would not accept the parish assignment, which apparently could be in the same town where the shelter is located, and may appeal to other church authorities in hopes of getting posted to another shelter elsewhere.
Tension between activist priests and a more conservative church leadership is nothing new in Mexico.
The best-known recent case involved Ruiz, who died in 2011. Part of the liberation theology movement that swept Latin America after the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, Ruiz tried to fend off the rapid growth of Protestant denominations by adapting to Indian customs.
The bishop relied heavily on married male lay workers because the Indian culture grants more respect to men with children than to childless, celibate men such as priests. Some in the church worried the married deacons were overstepping the limited role foreseen for them in the Catholic hierarchy, possibly even taking on some priestly functions.
In 2002, the Vatican council asked the Chiapas diocese to halt deacon ordinations, and the Vatican opened an investigation that included a look at suspicions that women were also being ordained as deacons.
The results of those investigations were not released.