SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Retired Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a staunch defender of Indian rights who served a mediator in peace talks between the government and leftist Zapatista rebels, died Monday at the age of 86.
The man who replaced Ruiz at the Roman Catholic diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Bishop Felipe Arizmendi, said Ruiz died at a Mexico City hospital. The federal Interior Department said he died of complications arising from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Ruiz became an icon of the struggle of the Mayan Indian groups who were long so marginalized and mistreated that they were forced to work in slave-like conditions into the early 20th century, felling the forests on land that was once theirs.
President Felipe Calderon said in a statement that "Samuel Ruiz struggled to build a more just, more equal, dignified Mexico without discrimination," adding, "He always acted with integrity and moral rectitude."
"His death represents a great loss for Mexico," Calderon said
The praise was a sharp contrast to the suspicion Ruiz aroused in past federal governments that sometimes accused him of collaborating with the rebel movement, or even leading it.
Ruiz led the diocese in the Chiapas highlands city from 1959 to 2000, when he stepped aside after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75.
The diocese is named after a 16th-century defender of Indian rights, Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, who publicized the mistreatment of Indians being worked to death in the mines and fields of the Spanish colonies. Five centuries later, they were still living in poverty.
Ruiz was known to his followers as "The Bishop of the Poor" or "Tatik" — "father" in the Tzotzil Indian language — while critics called him "the Red Bishop" during the brief, armed uprising by the Zapatistas in 1994 to demand greater Indian rights.
Some of the Zapatista leaders had earlier served as deacons under Ruiz before veering into the guerrilla group and some conservatives accused Ruiz of secretly fomenting the rebellion, an allegation that largely faded away as the movement's origins became better known.
Soon after the uprising, Ruiz was chosen to mediate talks between the government and the rebels. In 1998, the government pressured Ruiz to resign as mediator, implying he was too sympathetic to the guerrillas.
An uneasy truce has prevailed since then, with the Zapatistas holed up in a handful of "autonomous" townships in rural Chiapas where they do not recognize government authority.
"This marks the death of one of the great consciences in the defense of Indian rights, and human rights," said writer Homero Aridjis. "After Samuel Ruiz, it was impossible to look at Chiapas Indians, Indians in the whole Mayan area, in the same way."
Ruiz was part of the liberation theology movement that swept Latin America following the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. "Bishops like Samuel Ruiz took up the tradition of Fray Bartolome de las Casas," said Aridjis. "It is sad that, five centuries later, they had to take up the same cause."
Ruiz tried to fend off the rapid growth of Protestant denominations by adapting to Indian customs. He relied heavily on married male lay workers because the Indian culture grants more respect to men who had children than to celibate men like priests.
Some worried the deacons may have overstepped the limited role foreseen for them in the Catholic hierarchy — tasks like reading Bible passages during mass — possibly taking on some of the functions of priests.
In 2002, the Vatican council asked Arizmendi to halt deacon ordinations, arguing that continuing them "would be equivalent to sustaining an ecclesiastic model alien to the life and traditions of the Church."
The practices of his "Indigenous church" irritated conservatives, who suggested he was twisting church theology, and the Vatican opened an investigation into that included a look at suspicions that women had been ordained as deacons and the use of Mayan works such as "Chilam Bilam" and the "Popol Vuh" were read.
The results of those investigations were not released.
Ruiz is survived by a nephew.
Arizmendi said the retired bishop's body will be returned for a memorial service to San Cristobal de Las Casas. Burial plans remained unclear.
Associated Press Writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.