By José Yelincic G.
Latin America is turning evangelical. The continent which has been predominantly Catholic for nearly 500 years since the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese “conquistadors,” is now being shaken by a widespread wave of change in the religious field. Thousands of people are leaving the Catholic church, which means leaving a tradition and a culture held for centuries, to join evangelical Protestant churches, and especially Pentecostal ones.
The Catholic hierarchy is concerned. Some authors and researchers say that in Brazil, supposedly the largest Catholic nation in the world, over a half million Brazillians are leaving the Catholic church for evangelical churches each year. Others say that “the number of evangelicals has tripled regionwide in the past 25 years and in some countries has even sextupled.“1
Although statistics may vary, the fact is that a wind of revival is sweeping Latin America, to such extent that scholars and sociologists are seriously thinking of a true new Reformation (like the one that took place in Europe in the 1500s) taking place in Latin America. Spectators of this evangelical movement ponder the reasons for the mass exodus from traditional religion. There are many causes: people seeking spiritual responses that no longer come from a secularized church; an attraction to more participatory and less ritualistic forms of worship; the personal approach to the Scriptures held to by evangelical churches; the Catholic church’s internal crisis; and the desire for participation in a close community of the newly converted.
This situation seems to open a new window of hope for Latin American countries, due to the positive economic, political, and social impact of evangelical conversion; although it is also producing tensions that have resulted, in extreme cases, in death for some evangelicals.
In several countries, the principal fortress, and ultimately the source for the institutionalized intolerance lies on the “official church” status that Catholicism enjoys. Catholics usually refer the emerging Christian churches as “sects,” and charge them with destroying the national spiritual unity, the family, and popular traditions.
Here is an overview of some of the countries that are experiencing spiritual revival, but also religious intolerance.
Situated in the heartland of South America this country is witnessing a very dynamic movement of Protestant and evangelical churches. But it has had a high price to pay in the past. Eight Baptist missionaries were stoned to death by a mob in Mercamaya, a small town near Oruro, in 1949. Today threats and violent actions against Protestants are common in rural zones. In the last few months, major articles against evangelicals have appeared weekly in the national newspapers. The arguments used to attack the evangelicals vary from accusations of “being instruments of foreign imperialism” to “being harmful for the national culture.”
Last year a formal petition for religious freedom sponsored by 24,000 signatures from all over the country was sent to the Bolivian congress.
There is now increasing interest in a constitutional reform among Argentinian Protestants. Written petitions are being sent to the President and parliamentarians urging them to convene a constitutional assembly for 1993.
As of now, the Argentinian Constitution establishes that the state supports the Roman Catholic religion. Moreover, it is constitutionally stated that a citizen must be Roman Catholic to be President of the nation. A dangerous legal project known as the Jimenez Montilla Bill, which has already been approved by the Senate will inflict jail terms of six months to two years on persons guilty of “crimes against religious sentiment,” “abuse of faith or religious beliefs,” and the “illegal exercise of worship.” This law will severely restrict freedom of worship.2
Although the evangelical church is growingquickly in this nation, Mexico is by far the Latin American country with the most cases of violent persecution. Although there has been no official church since the times of Benito Juarez (1855) the Catholic church has widely influenced the religious behavior and culture of society. The result is a long tradition of intolerance, violent threats, stoning of chapels, beatings and arrests of pastors.
Recently, four evangelicals – two of them pastors – were finally released after being held in jail since November 1991, accused of stealing the crown of the Virgin and other cult artifacts from a Catholic church in Nuevo Acambay. There was no evidence connecting them to the theft.
Another recent case concerns the hundreds of Chamula Protestant Indians who had suffered a violent attack and eviction by tribal leaders. The attackers wanted the evangelical Chamulas off their land because they refused to participate in Catholic festivals.3
Government establishment of religion will be finally be abolished in June, if the Constitutional Assembly approves a project for the new constitution. Surprisingly, even the Catholic church has officially recognized that “it has become clear that it is best for society not to impose a confessionality upon the state.”
Since June 1991, the Colombian Constitution has provided for freedom of religion. This historic step was widely supported not only by Protestant Christians, but also by followers of indigenous religions.
Latin America is rapidly changing, faster than anyone would believe. In the midst of uncertainties and contradictions the flames of revival are rising, burning out an old fashioned worldview. This revival involves primarily religion, but reaches culture, social order, economics and politics. The degree to which a reformation can be accomplished depends now upon the extent that religious freedom reformers are willing to fight for and sustain.
(1) Andres Tapia, “Why is Latin America Turning Protestant?” Christianity Today, April 6, 1992.
(2) Dave Miller, “Laws on Religion Spark Controversy in Argentina,” Christian Observer, March 20, 1992.
(3) News Network International, Special Edition, April 24, 1992.
Jose Yelincic G. is Communications Coordinator of the Rutherford Institute in Latin America.