EVANGELICAL Angel Urbina Sanchez lifts his straw hat to reveal
the lingering welts and scars of his faith. On Feb. 8, some 20 to
40 local Roman Catholic campesinos pummeled him with stones and
In this remote Mazahua Indian village of maguey, cows, and corn,
a handful of Pentecostal followers are stubbornly rending centuries
"Until four years ago, I never knew anyone who wasn't Catholic,"
says Mr. Urbina, standing outside his wooden, dirt-floor shack.
While not the norm, incidents of persecution are occurring with
some frequency in Mexico, as communities struggle to accept a
dramatic societal change.
Since the Spanish conquest, the Catholic Church has woven itself
into the fabric of Mexican life, adopting indigenous gods as saints
and merging traditional festivals with Christian holidays. But in
the last two decades, Protestant and fundamentalist evangelical
denominations have boomed from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego.
About 10 percent of Latin America's 450 million inhabitants now
belong to non-Catholic churches. In Guatemala, one-third of the
population is non-Catholic, including the president and vice
Mexico's 1990 census lists 90 percent of the population as
Catholic. But evangelists claim the census-takers gave them only
two options: Christian or Protestant. Many evangelists signed up as
Christians and were counted as Catholics. The National Forum of
Evangelical Christian Churches in Mexico City counts 17.5 percent
of Mexicans among its followers.
What no one disputes is that the "new" religions are growing
much faster than the Catholic Church. The reaction by Catholic
officials has been blunt.
"The church does not want to ignite a crusade against
Protestants, because the time for a holy war is past," said the
Vatican's representative in Mexico, Geronimo Prigione, on March 17.
But he went on to criticize the recruiting methods of other
churches, saying, "This is unjust and we reject and condemn it. The
sects, like flies, have to be removed."
At first, the Catholic Church here tried to ignore the trend,
says Rodolfo Casillas Ramirez of the Center for Religious Studies
in Mexico City. "Now we're seeing a counteroffensive based on
discrediting the newcomers. They're described as 'agents of
imperialism not Christians, but members of a social movement, a
sect sent by foreigners to destroy national and cultural values,"
says Mr. Casillas.
The newer religions are appealing, he says, because they're
perceived as more accessible and offer simple answers. "People are
told AIDS is the result of not respecting God's laws. A new
discipline is applied: Don't drink or smoke or have extramarital
relations, and your life will improve. And it does," says Casillas.
"If the father stops drinking, the family has more money and the
entire religious community provides positive reinforcement by
celebrating his progress. …