San Andres Yaa is a small town of an indigenous community, located in southwestern Mexico. Its picturesque landscape with houses tucked into a forest on a mountainside, does not leave an impression of a violent place. However, it is - towards those who abandon the customary animist religion of the tribe and convert to Christianity.
The persecution in San Andres Yaa started in 2006 when a Christian couple – Pastor Imeldo and his wife - were expelled from the town. Following their eviction, the community destroyed the church built by the pastor.
Imeldo and his wife Adolfina converted to Christianity when their daughter became seriously ill at the age of three. She was in the hospital and doctors gave no hope for her survival, but Adolfina's Christian sister asked if the pastor of her church could pray for the child. The couple agreed.
After their daughter was cured, Imeldo and Adolfina decided to dedicate their lives to serving Christ by preaching in their community.
At first, they shared the word of God without trouble; plenty of people listened, but only a few converted.
With these few converts, Pastor Imeldo decided it was time to open a church so they could meet. They built the church on a piece of land, provided by Adolfina's father, on the outskirts of the town. Some people from the town gradually started visiting the worship services; the church grew to a congregation of 15 people.
That was when the trouble started.
One day, they held a service to baptise a child. When the service ended, the congregation was prevented from leaving by the local authorities. Pastor Imeldo was asked to provide proof of permission to hold services - something that had never been requested before.
They told the pastor that he would no longer be allowed to hold services and preach in the town. Pastor Imeldo, however, did not succumb to the pressure and stated that the services would continue.
In the following days he started receiving threats: the local authorities demanded that he either renounce his Christian faith or face the consequences.
"Do what you want, I'm not going to renounce," was the answer of Pastor Imeldo.
It was 11pm on a rainy night when the pastor was arrested and detained. Then, the authorities and members of the community proceeded to destroy his church. They broke down the roof and destroyed the walls. The group returned to the site the next morning, when they completely demolished the building, cleared the mess, and erased all trace of a church.
"They removed all evidence that there had ever been a church on the site. They even managed to plant plants, bananas, and that was it. They threw it all away," Adolfina told the Christian anti-persecution charity Open Doors.
The authorities offered the pastor another chance to renounce his faith, in return for a quiet life. Upon his refusal, they expelled him and his family from the community.
"I don't know how God gave my husband strength, but he continued," Adolfina said.
"It was in the afternoon, when the authorities and members of public took us two kilometers away from San Andres Yaa, dropped us off for us to walk the rest of the distance. They left us there. And from there, we went to Oaxaca."
Even with an order from the judge to let them return to the town, the local authorities and the community did not accept them.
After several attempts without any result, Open Doors finally picked up the case of Imeldo and Adolfina, provided a lawyer and funded the legal process.
"Thanks to Open Doors, the process started to flow," Adolfina said. "Right now, the lawyer is still trying to solve the problem. She already won the case, but the people don't want us to come back."
Adolfina says they fought hard for compensation.
"My husband fought for them to pay for everything they destroyed, everything they took, to pay us," she said.
"We had land so that's what the lawyer is fighting for."
Unfortunately, Imeldo will no longer be able to discover the result: recently the pastor died of Covid-19. However, Adolfina continues to push for justice.
"My husband is gone. He fought, he fought to the end. He's resting, but he left us. That's what hurts me most."
While the legal process is continuing, the members of Pastor Imeldo's congregation have not given up on their faith. They still gather secretly in small house churches so that the seeds sown by Pastor Imeldo in San Andres Yaa will continue to bloom.
Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for over 60 years and works in over 60 countries. In 2020, it raised £42 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised about £16 million.