ACCORDING TO GOVERNMENT figures, as much as 96% of the Venezuelan population is nominally Roman Catholic (website of Venezuelan Embassy, London). Religious faith and practice, however, are much more diverse than that figure suggests. As elsewhere in Latin America, a variety of cultural influences and specific historical factors have merged to produce some original expressions of Catholic belief. Many who consider themselves Catholics are at the same time devotees of popular cults, some of which have been accepted by the Catholic Church. Others have been condemned as deviant practices that undermine fundamental Catholic principles. Whatever their status, these cults are the most distinctive feature of religious life in Venezuela. They have generated a wide range of regularly practiced rituals, and the images and figures associated with them are a common sight in homes, shops, and vehicles across the country.
Waves of immigrants have introduced other major religions into Venezuela; Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and the Orthodox churches are all represented. However, the number of adherents has remained far too small to challenge the dominant position of Catholicism. Protestantism has the second largest following, though the Evangelical churches that spread throughout Latin America in the latter decades of the twentieth century have not had the same impact in Venezuela as in other nations of the region. Many of the indigenous communities in the remoter areas of the country still preserve their own religious traditions, but they comprise no more than 2% of the population (Ferguson, 1994, 73). The dominance of the Catholic Church must not be exaggerated, however. As will be explained, events and circum-