* "Saint Death" worshipers protest destruction of shrine
* Cult says it has 5 million followers (Adds quote, detail from protest march)
By Mica Rosenberg
MEXICO CITY, April 10 (Reuters) - Followers of Mexico’s "Saint Death" cult figure, revered by thieves and drug runners but also law-abiding housewives, say their faith is being persecuted by the government’s war against drug cartels.
Dozens of worshipers marched through Mexico City on Good Friday, many barefoot and showing off tattoos of the macabre cult figure, in the latest of a series of protests after soldiers and police bulldozed elaborate roadside shrines to the saint near the northern border with Texas.
Known as "Santa Muerte" in Spanish, the saint is often depicted as a skeletal "grim reaper" draped in white satin robes, beaded necklaces and carrying a scythe. Followers leave offerings of tequila, rum, beer, cigarettes, cash, flowers and candy at altars adorned with rosaries and candles.
Mexican authorities destroyed more than 30 such shrines erected near the city of Nuevo Laredo last month on the grounds they were built without the proper licenses. Some shrines were also knocked down in Tijuana, triggering protests there.
"We just want people to respect our faith like we respect other religions," said Pablo, a 28-year-old at the protest who says he once avoided a jail sentence by praying to Saint Death.
The Catholic Church frowns on the cult, whose origins may trace back to Aztec and Mayan death-gods or to ancient European traditions, but many devotees call themselves Catholics.
The lure of the death saint is that she is said to honor requests without judging them.
Her followers number up to 5 million, according to the cult’s high priest David Romo, ranging from police and politicians to kidnappers and gangsters who are said to ask her for protection before setting out on hits.
Romo says his church condemns violence and has no links to drug traffickers, but he leaves the door open to everyone.
"Christ went to see prostitutes, thieves, all marginalized people," Romo said in his cramped office in the saint’s largest sanctuary in Mexico City, a run-down storefront around the corner from a street lined with prostitutes.
President Felipe Calderon has launched an army assault on Mexico’s drug gangs, but the increased firepower has failed to contain the violence. Some 6,300 people were killed last year.
In 2007, gunmen from the powerful Gulf Cartel handcuffed three men and shot them dead at a Santa Muerte altar in Nuevo Laredo, leaving lit candles, flowers and a taunting message for rivals.
At the shrine in Tepito — a rough part of the capital with a market that reputedly sells contraband and drugs — chicken coops line the walls near the pews facing two life-sized skeleton statues wearing glittering dresses and crowns.
Friday’s marchers walked in silence from the shrine to Mexico City’s historic center, carrying Saint Death statues and flaming torches. One held a skull on a stick sporting wispy black hair.
Santa Muerte offers a refuge to people who can be shunned by traditional Catholic hierarchies. "If a narco opens the doors of his heart and comes to us asking for spiritual assistance wanting to convert, we say welcome," Romo said.
Followers say their death saint is being unfairly targeted, since criminals profess all kinds of religions.
"They link her with criminals because many of the people they arrest bear her image. But there are a lot of hard-working people behind her," said protester Ernesto Hernandez, 40, who said he owns a furniture shop on the edge of the capital. (Editing by Catherine Bremer and Mohammad Zargham)