The Roman Catholic bishop of Oaxaca said Saturday the church cannot grant sanctuary to four leftists who led a five-month takeover of the city to demand the resignation of the state governor.
The four had publicly asked for protection in one of the city's churches earlier this week, fearing they might be arrested on charges stemming from their role in demonstrations which at times turned violent.
But Bishop Jose Luis Chavez Botello told reporters on Saturday that the church has neither the resources nor the facilities to provide sanctuary, an ancient tradition in which temples shielded people from detention by authorities.
The bishop said the church was trying to act as a facilitator of dialogue and has not shown preferences in the conflict, which began as a teachers' strike in late May.
"We have cared for average citizens, policemen, teachers and state government employees without distinction," the bishop said.
For five months, leftist protesters allied with the striking teachers seized the city center, kept out state police and drove away tourists from one of Mexico's top destinations. They built barricades, burned buses and took over private radio stations to broadcast calls for revolution. Nine people have been killed in the city since August, most of them leftists.
The president on Oct. 29 sent 4,000 federal officers backed by helicopters and water cannons to push the leftists out of the city center and regain control.
Flavio Sosa is the most visible leader of the Oaxaca People's Assembly a coalition of leftists, anarchists and neighborhood groups calling for the resignation of Gov. Ulises Ruiz who they accuse of rigging a 2004 election.
Sosa faces arrest warrants on riot and conspiracy charges, but has also been engaged in on-again, off-again talks with the federal government. He spends most of his time surrounded by supporters at Oaxaca's state university where protesters set up their headquarters after being expelled by police from the city's main square. The university's rector has refused to allow police to enter the facility.
But he also frequently speaks to reporters and supporters just a couple of blocks from positions the federal police took up in the city following the raid in late October. Police apparently have never pursued him.
On Saturday, protesters met to plan out the movement's future strategy after striking teachers voted to accept pay increases and many agreed to return to work.
Meanwhile, sporadic violence has persisted in the city as federal officers clashed with protesters using gasoline bombs and fireworks packed with glass and nails. Last week, 30 people were injured in confrontations with police.
Federal police said over the weekend that they would start assuming anti-crime operations in the city because some criminals had taken advantage of the political upheaval to commit robberies and other crimes.