SAN ANDRES ITZAPA, Guatemala (AP) - Maya Indians cross themselves in Roman Catholic fashion after walking miles to visit San Simon, a wooden idol seated in a chair, his fat cigar jutting from beneath a big hat.
The shrine, 20 miles west of Guatemala City, is filled with smoke from multicolored candles - each signifying a prayer for the icon, whose origins are unclear. Photographs crowd the back wall.
Such shrines to pagan saints are common throughout Latin America, where many Catholic priests have long tolerated the mixing of Christian and native rituals. They are especially prevalent in Guatemala, where about 60 percent of the population of 10.7 million is Maya.
When Pope John Paul II arrives here Monday, he will find a Maya population that more openly practices the animist beliefs long veiled by the cloak of Catholicism.
For the first time since Christianity arrived here five centuries ago, Guatemalan Indians are increasingly rejecting Christian worship in favor of ancestral rites, anthropologists and Maya activists say.
"Many are returning to the Maya faith," said Vitalino Simolox, a Presbyterian minister. "I personally know three Catholic priests who privately practice the Maya theology."
As many as a fifth of Guatemala's Indians practice their ancestors' faith despite Catholicism's centuries-old hold and a recent wave of Protestant evangelism, said anthropologist German Curuchiche of the private Center of Maya Cultural Studies.
There are now at least 5,000 native priests publicly practicing Maya rituals and thousands of others who worship clandestinely, said Maya priest Eduardo Pacay Vide.
"Something important is happening," said Pacay, a schoolteacher who worships at an outdoor altar in the capital, his head wrapped in a traditional red scarf.
Maya belief holds that a life force resides in every object, animate or inanimate. Ceremonies are celebrated according to sophisticated calendars and often revolve around corn, a food staple the Maya consider sacred.
Since the Spanish conquest, and the accompanying Roman Catholic evangelization, Mayas have blended their beliefs with those of Christianity.
Every year during Easter Week processions in the lakeside community of Santiago Atitlan, an idol similar to San Simon joins Jesus and Mary. Catholics often make offerings of sugar cane and fruit liquors to saintly images in brightly woven Maya costumes.
The trend toward emphasizing the Maya beliefs has launched a debate among Catholic leaders about how much much native worship the church can tolerate and still call itself Christian.
Some Catholic leaders worry that if they don't address the question they could lose more of their parishioners to the resurgent native faith. Already, Protestant groups claim about 30 percent of Guatemala's population.
"It is the great dilemma facing the church," acknowledged Roman Catholic Brother Benjamin Rivas, president of the Guatemalan Religious Conference.
As the church competes with other religions to win the faith of people who hold strong ties to traditional beliefs in places as diverse as Africa and South America, the Vatican has been forced to take up the issue. In September, the pope himself said he would study it.
In Guatemala, the Maya faith is linked with a 35-year-old guerrilla war against the government for greater rights of the poor and Indians. More than 120,000 people have been killed.
Last March, a peace accord recognized the sanctity of animist Maya rituals. Maya priests built a bonfire outside the capital's National Cathedral and prayed to the forces of nature to make the accord successful.
The Roman Catholic church has spoken out in favor of greater rights for Indians in Guatemala. In 1992 - the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala - the Guatemalan Catholic Church issued a public apology for abuses committed against the Indians during its evangelization of Guatemala.
During his visit, the pope plans to meet with Indian activist Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.
Maya priests, although they increasingly reject Catholic dogma, say they look forward to the visit of the pope, whom they respect as a holy man and consider especially wise because of his 75 years. In the Maya culture, the elderly are the guardians of culture and tradition.
"We are hoping he will bring us peace," said Gabriel Leandro Quiej Chanchavac, a Maya priest who performs rituals at the San Simon chapel here. "We have had much violence, many widows."