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Umar, 64, a Muslim from the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, speaks with Evangelical worshippers in a meeting between members of both religions at an evangelical church in San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas state, Mexico, August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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By Edgard Garrido

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (Reuters) - A trip to Mexico's indigenous Maya heartland showed me how a vibrant Muslim community had sprung up in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

In the southern state of Chiapas, home to a lush mountainous landscape, I photographed members of a small Muslim community made up of hundreds of mostly indigenous Tzotzil men and women, many of whom converted to Islam from Catholic or other Christian denominations.

The Muslim men here are distinguished by their prayer caps, or kufis, and the women by their hijabs which take the form of traditional Maya shawls.

Locals say the conversions to Islam here began in the late 1980s, around the same time Mexico's Zapatista movement was gaining traction in Chiapas, as institutions including Christianity and capitalism came under increasing criticism.

According to the last census, some 83 percent of Mexicans are Catholic. And although Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Mexico's 120 million population, a disproportionate number are indigenous clustered in and around San Cristobal de las Casas, a highland city in Chiapas that mixes both Maya and Spanish identity.

"People gave us a weird look when we converted, they thought we were terrorists and were scared of us," said Mustafa, a member of the nearby Ahmadia community. "But with the passage of time and our own actions, that opinion has changed," he added.

Umar, an indigenous former evangelical pastor, converted to Islam in the late 1990s and now serves as a bridge between local Christians and Muslims.

"Ours is a monotheistic religion," he said. "But we don't worship saints."

I later met 55-year-old Mohamed Amin who invited me to his home, offering me cookies and tea. He showed me where he prays five times a day and introduced me to his family. He asked me if I believed in God and I said no. That did not appear to bother him.

He went on to explain the main reason behind his conversion to Islam.

"I like to be clean and change my clothes," he said. "This is a clean religion and that's what originally drew me to it."

For a related photo essay, see: http://reut.rs/2izhpmh

(Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Diane Craft)

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