“An incalculable damage”

On 19. In September of this year, the earth in Mexico shook more strongly than it had in a long time. Three months later, the people are still suffering from the consequences and the church has also been badly hit.

Red barrier tapes with the inscription "Peligro" – "Danger" are stretched across the chancel. In its center, the pews are provisionally stacked on top of each other and covered with a dusty plastic tarp. Time and again, parts of the interior facade fall to the ground with a crash. Father Gonzalo Iturarte leads a tour of the cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas, a city in southern Mexico. He points upwards to where the organ loft used to be: "There was an old wooden organ there. It may have been out of use, but it was out of the 16. Century." The historic instrument was completely buried under the rubble. Above, in the roof truss, a meter-sized hole gapes, wooden beams protrude like broken matches.

The massive building from the colonial era was severely damaged by the earthquake three months ago. Numerous columns and round arches now have to be shored up because they are in danger of collapsing. The bell tower and the archive with numerous historical documents also had to be closed off. It was a drama for the diocese, the padre said, "but thank God that not so many people died in the earthquake. In other states, it was much worse."

Donations are not forthcoming

But for churches, it’s a problem that so many buildings now remain closed: Services have to be held outdoors or have been moved to other churches, chapels and community spaces. "Here the church services are always full, we have to organize that differently now," says Iturarte. This also applies to many educational or social projects, for which there is now a lack of space. "And, of course, our income is decreasing dramatically, because now the collection stops and we don’t get any more money, for example, for baptisms or weddings." Unlike in Germany, there is no church tax in Mexico. The church lives on donations alone, and those have already dropped by 40 percent since the quake, the padre says.

Like the congregation in San Cristobal de las Casas, this is the situation for many in the country. The earth shook several times in Mexico this fall, with the most devastating consequences coming from the quake on the 19th. September 2017 near the capital. More than 360 people lost their lives, numerous buildings collapsed or were severely damaged. Among them also over 1.600 cathedrals, monasteries, chapels, seminaries, parish halls and educational institutions – this is what recent surveys by the Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) have shown.

World cultural heritage destroyed

The damage is incalculable, according to the Secretary General of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference, Monsignor Alfonso Miranda Guardiola: In Mexico City and in Puebla, several monasteries and temples were destroyed that are on the Unesco World Heritage List. Historic monasteries from the 16th century. Century for example and centuries old archives. "It’s really a big blow to us," he says "and we’re going to be busy rebuilding for a long time to come."

The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) is responsible for this, because church buildings in Mexico are state property. But hardly anyone expects that to happen quickly at the moment. Initial criticism that aid for earthquake victims is too cumbersome and inefficient. The southern states in particular are in danger of being forgotten, says Padre Rogelio Narvaez MartInez, head of Social Pastoral – Caritas in Mexico: "People in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas have lost their livelihoods: mills have been destroyed, fishing boats, stoves, water reservoirs, everything people need for daily life." Oaxaca and Chiapas are among Mexico’s poorest states, which is why the quake’s impact there was so great. "We as Caritas now want to put these people back to work," he promises.

Great solidarity

After the quake, international support was strong: the Mexican church received help, for example, from the Spanish and Polish bishops’ conferences, but also from U.S. dioceses, the pope and the German Latin American relief organization Adveniat, which provided 20.000 euros in emergency aid.

In Mexico, too, solidarity was great: Tens of thousands of people helped in the days and weeks after the quake, clearing away rubble, offering their homes as emergency shelters, and organizing uncomplicated and rapid help via social networks wherever it was needed. That also makes Monsignor Alfonso Miranda of the bishops’ conference proud: "The cohesion in the face of this tragedy was really impressive," he says, adding, "But we Mexicans must continue to stick together and make an effort. Still a long time."

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