Christian Sects Clash in Latin America Catholicism's Hold on Latin America Is under Challenge by Evangelicals and Other Protestants. and in North America, Indians Are Pursuing Legal Means to Win Full Religious Rights

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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 clubs.

In this remote Mazahua Indian village of maguey, cows, and corn, a handful of Pentecostal followers are stubbornly rending centuries of tradition.

"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 president.

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. …


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