For most Mexicans, June 21st represents the end of spring and the beginning of summer. But for many people, especially Catholics, this day is more than an ephemeris.
99 years ago the Cristero War that occurred between 1926 and 1929 ended, a period of intense battles between faithful of the Catholic Church and the Mexican Army.
The fighting took place almost throughout the country, although it was particularly intense in the central region known as El Bajío.
In the Cristiada, as it is also known, more than 250,000 people died, according to historians.
It was the third of the wars in the history of Mexico where religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, had a relevant role.
The other two were the process of Independence started in 1810 by the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, as well as the War of the Reformation or the Three Years War between 1857 and 1861.
In different ways, the processes contributed to the formation of what is now Mexico , specialists agree, especially due to the secular nature of the country.
But of the three the most recent, the Cristera, is the one with the most noticeable influence.
In some regions of the country and among many Catholics, there is the idea that it is an open wound. But others believe that the protracted battle left Mexicans a strong teaching.
“The church and the state learned the lesson,” Jean Meyer, master emeritus of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), told BBC Mundo.
“You don’t have to play with the faith of the people, it would be like setting the prairie on fire in a dry season.”
When the War of Independence occurred, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Viceroyalty of New Spain lived almost 300 years of the period known as La Colonia.
In the territory of what is now Mexico there was a growing disagreement among the Creoles, who were the majority of the population in the large cities, towards the Spanish peninsular.
An environment that also prevailed within the Catholic church, recalls the specialist in religions Bernardo Barranco.
“Independence is presented as a great struggle, but at the same time they are also inter-church struggles,” he explains to BBC Mundo.
“There was what was called the lower clergy or an enlightened clergy in the face of the hegemony of the imperial clergy, married to the Spanish Crown and who held the springs of authority.”
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The enlightened clergy were priests with an additional education to religious training, and who at that time were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, popular in Europe.
One of them was Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, pastor in the town of Dolores, Guanajuato in the center of the country.
Hidalgo joined a secret society that promoted the creation of a congress to govern the territory on behalf of King Ferdinand VII, who had been deposed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops.
The conspiracy was discovered and on September 16, 1810 the priest gathered a crowd in Dolores and began the fight against the Viceroyalty.
The Catholic hierarchy condemned the insurrection, and even excommunicated the priest. It was part of the internal differences in the Church, recalls the historian Barranco.
“The Church is a conglomerate of institutions, dioceses, characters and local actors, it is not homogeneous,” he explains.
At the time of Independence “the lower enlightened clergy had no control of the apparatus, but of the masses.”
Hidalgo was defeated in 1811. Months later he was sentenced to death but the war for independence did not stop.
Another priest, José María Morelos, took over the Insurgent Army although he was also defeated. The fight ended in 1821.
War of the Reformation
Beginning in 1855, a series of laws known as Reforms were enacted, which were rejected by the Catholic Church.
Legislation, for example, established the obligation to sell all church property, annulled special courts for the military and priests, and established freedom of opinion and of the press.
Freedom of religion and education was also established, in addition to abolishing slavery throughout the country.
In fact, it involved the separation of the Church from the tasks of government, but what caused the most disagreement was the obligation to sell their properties.
“It sparked the fury of the hegemonic clergy because the i Catholic hurch owned more than one third of the territory of the country , ” says the historian Barranco.
The conflict deepened when the Reform Laws were included in the 1857 Constitution. At that time the President of Mexico was Benito Juárez.
The Catholic hierarchy threatened to excommunicate those who abided by the new laws while conservatives, supported by the church, ignored the Constitution.
A group of soldiers rose up in arms through the so-called Tacubaya Plan, to which several governors joined.
Then began a civil war that lasted three years, until 1860 when the conservatives were defeated.
The confrontation, however, ruined the coffers of the Juárez government, which suspended payment of the debt with France, the United Kingdom, and Spain.
In retaliation Napoleon III sent troops to invade Mexico. The decision was supported by conservatives and the church.
Even in 1863 they promoted the creation of a monarchical state in Mexico ruled by Maximilian of Habsburg.
The invasion was defeated in 1867. From that year on, more laws were passed that definitively separated the church from the state.
The first governments after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1915) applied severe measures to try to control religious worship in the country.
President Plutarco Elías Calles, for example, issued a decree to compel all priests to register with the Ministry of the Interior to exercise their ministry.
It was not just an administrative action, explains Jean Meyer, one of the historians who has most documented this period.
“In 1925 the government tried to form a schismatic church, a Catholic, Apostolic and Mexican church by severing relations with the Vatican,” he explains.
The Catholic hierarchy tried to stop the presidential decree in court but without success.
In 1926, when the law began to apply, the church suspended public worship.
In response, the authorities closed all the temples with the argument of making an inventory, since the precincts are legally national heritage.
“In many places people rioted or filled temples to prevent their closure and blood began to flow, ” recalls Jean Meyer.
“Thus we spontaneously entered the stage of the armed struggle. It went down in history as a christiad that lasted from the summer of 1926 to June 21, 1929.”
This period is known as the Cristero War because those who faced the Army did so in the name of the Catholic religion. His battle cry was “Long live Christ the King”.
The hostilities ended in 1929 after several years of negotiations where the embassies of Spain and the United States even participated, for example.
There were no winners, says Jean Meyer. “It was a very difficult situation, it was like a draw.”
The Cristeros “did not have enough strength to overthrow the government and the Army was unable to defeat the guerrillas.”
One of the central reasons for ending the conflict was the high number of victims.
More than 250,000 people died in the Cristiada, but of these, about 80,000 were fighters, says Jean Meyer.
The rest were peasants from the lands where the battles were fought. For this reason, says the CIDE teacher, the Cristero War is one of the most violent moments in the history of Mexico.
The influence of that period still remains in some sectors of the country, especially in the Catholic Church.
Several priests and Christian fighters have been canonized by John Paul II and Pope Francis. Of the 31 Mexican saints, 26 participated in the Cristero War.
The most recent was José Sánchez del Río, a 14-year-old teenager who, according to the church, was executed in 1928 by the Army in Sahuayo, Michoacán.