Aggressive Mormons Aim at Latin America: Catholics Lose Ground in Evangelical Ferment

By Robbins, Jim | National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 1994 | Go to article overview

Aggressive Mormons Aim at Latin America: Catholics Lose Ground in Evangelical Ferment


Robbins, Jim, National Catholic Reporter


La Paz, Bolivia - In a huge auditorium in downtown La Paz, a capacity crowd sways back and forth to a catchy rock tune, arms in the air, as they sing loudly and emotionally about the Holy Ghost. "Religion does not fill hearts," says Carlos Penaloza, head of Ekklesia Bolivia, in an office above the auditorium. "A personal relationship with God fills your heart."

This is a scene from the South America of the 1990s. The Catholic church, which has held a virtual spiritual monopoly on the continent since the Spanish conquest, has found itself the religious equivalent of IBM. Big, bureaucratic and slow to adapt to a changing world, Catholicism is losing out to other, mostly Protestant, denominations that offer a very different - some say more compelling - message.

One of the fast-growing new groups in Latin America is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons. While not the largest of the groups, Mormons, with an aggressive style of evangelizing, have become one of the most controversial.

Except for a brief, written statement, officials at the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City refused to discuss any aspect of this story.

Since 1960 the number of Protestants in Latin America has gone from about 6 million to between 40 million and 50 million, according to several experts who have studied the region. The number of Catholics is hard to come by, but experts say the number of South Americans who identify themselves as Catholic is dropping.

Many of the fastest-growing new religious groups in Latin America are Pentecostal. People are flocking in massive numbers to services such as that of Ekklesia Bolivia and to soccer stadiums where people speak in tongues, sing, fall down in ecstasy and "experience the Holy Spirit" in other ways. Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other smaller churches are also moving in aggressively to replace the Catholics.

In many ways the Mormons have drawn special attention. They have been denounced by Pope John Paul II and have been violently attacked by militant left-wing guerrillas. Their chapels are routinely bombed by the left, and five of their missionaries have been assassinated in Bolivia and Peru.

The assault on the Mormon church stems, in part, from left-wing annoyance with the church's wealth, its identification with the United States and its rapid growth and increasing prominence in the Southern Hemisphere.

The chief cause of the violent attacks by leftists, however, seems to be a belief that the Mormons are part of an attempt by North Americans to dominate life in Bolivia, Chile, Peru and elsewhere. The violence appears to be another manifestation of the ongoing war of cultures taking place in Latin America, a flip side of the violent attacks on some liberal Catholics by the political right wing.

The Mormons approach proselytizing with an unmatched and efficient fervor, and South America has been fertile ground for the Mormon plow. One Mormon expert says that in 1986 the global missionary force averaged seven recruits per two-year stint; but the average in Latin America was 13. "They are millenialists," says Fr. Franz Damen, referring to the Protestant belief in a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ before the end of time. Damen, a Roman Catholic priest based here, studies non-Catholic churches in Bolivia for his bishop. He says of Mormons, "They are in a hurry to convert. They are very insistent."

Mormons have built 435 chapels in Chile since 1961 and 92 chapels since they first came to Bolivia in 1964. In 1977, according to Mormon church figures, there were 35,000 baptized Mormons in Chile; now there are 320,000. In Bolivia there are 70,000 Mormons and officials say they are growing by 50 percent a year. How many are active and tithing 10 percent of their income, a common practice for Mormons, is not known. …

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