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 Islam Gains Toehold in Mexico

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (Reuters) - Islam has joined a battle for the hearts and minds of Mexico's volatile Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas state, home of Zapatista rebels and a hotbed of sectarian strife between Christians.

In an unlikely meeting of two worlds, an idealistic Muslim sect has converted some 300 Tzotzils, a Maya Indian group known for drink-fueled fiestas and religious fervor.

"It was difficult to learn the prayers in Arabic at first but now I have them in my heart," said Muhammad Emin Lopez, 46, a Tzotzil fruit merchant who boasts that his conversion to Islam in 1995 was the state's first.

He prays five times a day as required in Islam, has gone on the obligatory "haj" pilgrimage to Mecca and attends a small mosque in a cornfield on the outskirts of the hill town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Beside the mosque, a Tzotzil woman dressed in colorful Indian garb and known by the Muslim name Karima washes clothes in a stream near ramshackle wooden houses.

The growth of Islam in such a restive area has raised the eyebrows of Mexico's intelligence agency, wary of possible terrorist activity aimed at the neighboring United States.


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