A pastor in southwest Mexico was shot and killed after a church service on Sunday amid the ongoing targeting of faith leaders by criminal gangs.
According to international watchdog group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Pastor Alfrery Líctor Cruz Canseco was sitting in his car outside Fraternidad Cristiana church in the town of Tlalixtac de Cabrera in Oaxaca state when he was shot at point-blank range.
Cruz Canseco died while he was being transported to a local hospital.
"We extend our deepest condolences to the family and congregation of Pastor Cruz Canseco," CSW Chief Executive Merwyn Thomas said in a statement.
A translated statement posted on the Fraternidad Christiana Facebook page reads: "We regret the departure of Alfrery Lictor Cruz Canseco, friend and brother in Christ very loved by our congregation."
Although the motive remains uncertain, CSW, which advocates for Christians in over 20 countries worldwide, the killing comes on the heels of a recent series of attacks that have targeted religious leaders in the region.
Among the recent attacks against faith leaders was the kidnapping of Pastor Aarón Méndez Ruiz, who ran a shelter for Cuban immigrants in Nuevo Laredo and was abducted on Aug. 3.
"We also remain concerned for the well-being of Pastor Méndez Ruiz and urge the Mexican government to spare no effort in ensuring his safe return, investigating all of these crimes and prosecuting those responsible," Thomas stated.
CSW warns that the expansion of criminal groups in Mexico as well as a "climate of impunity" when it comes to crimes they commit has led to an increase in violence against Protestant and Catholic leaders because they are viewed as a threat to criminal groups.
According to CSW, 10 religious leaders were killed in Mexico in 2018.
As questions have been raised as to why church leaders in a predominantly-Catholic country are increasingly being abducted, harmed or killed, USA Today reported last April that at least 23 religious leaders had been killed in Mexico since 2012.
Earlier this week, the Catholic Multimedia Center reported that at least 26 Catholic priests have been killed since 2012.
"We urge the international community to engage with the Mexican government on these matters and to recognize the role that many religious leaders play, not only as leaders of their churches, but also as voices for peace, justice and integrity, and as human rights defenders," Thomas concluded in his statement.
Mexico ranks as the 39th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution as organized crime in the country continues to go unconfronted, according to Open Doors USA's 2019 World Watch List.
According to Open Doors, Christians, their leaders and church buildings in Mexico are increasingly becoming victims of attacks, threats, extortion and other forms of coercion throughout the entire country.
"Due to the government's inability to confront violence, some Christians feel forced to implement their own security strategies against acts of Christian persecution, including engaging leaders of criminal groups themselves," an Open Doors USA factsheet reads.
"Organized crime primarily targets priests and pastors, while indigenous power holders pressure Christians through fines, denying basic community service and imprisonment. The state attorney general in Guerrero has falsely implied that priests were engaged in criminal activity, further inflaming religious tensions."
In its 2017 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom voiced concern about the targeting of Catholic priests and other religious leaders by cartels such as Los Zetas and Knights Templar. The report noted that over the span of a week in September 2016, three priests were found dead.
"Religious leaders are targeted because they speak out against the gangs and/or because they refuse to include gang spiritual mythology in their sermons," the USCIRF report reads.