Visiting Pope Will Find Rising Tide of Protestantism in Latin America Visiting Pope Will Find Rising Tide of Protestantism in Latin America

By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Visiting Pope Will Find Rising Tide of Protestantism in Latin America Visiting Pope Will Find Rising Tide of Protestantism in Latin America


Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


ON a sunny morning in a downtown park in this Central American capital, a young man holding a microphone tells a rapt crowd of his rescue from liquor and lust by the word of the Lord.

He found that salvation, he says, in the Bible he holds high above his head. As the music from the electronic keyboard behind him swells, raised hands begin to wave in sync, and soon the stacks of leaflets for the young preacher's Evangelical church have disappeared.

This is just another day in the Protestant evangelization of Guatemala, but it could be many places in Latin America - a street corner in Santiago, Chile; a televised service in Brazil; a new Pentecostal church opening in Chiapas, Mexico.

It is into this climate of religious fervor that Pope John Paul II arrives Feb. 5 for a week-long trip to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Venezuela.

In addition to the message of succor he will bring to Latin America's poor, the pope will be calling back the millions of Latin American Roman Catholics that experts say convert each year to various Protestant - primarily Evangelical and Pentacostal - churches.

Considered for more than four centuries a nearly fissureless rock of the Catholic Church, Latin America today is estimated by experts to be nearing 15 percent Protestant. In some regions, such as Central America, southern Mexico, or parts of Brazil, the percentage is much higher. Protestant leaders estimate that 8,000 Latin Catholics convert every day. The Catholic Church estimates 10,000 converted in the early '80s.

Experts cite myriad reasons for Latin America's shifting religious makeup, from a movement toward more pluralistic thinking in a democratic age and the growing influence of American religious movements to the attraction of religions that offer hope for better material and spiritual conditions now.

"For five centuries the Catholic Church has told Latin Americans it would save their soul," says Adoniram Gaxiola, a Pentacostal minister in Mexico City. "But we tell them of a faith that saves their bodies and their souls and improves their lives today, and they come."

At the same time, however, John Paul II is expected to address the religious disharmony troubling a number of Latin countries. "If the pope is coming here it is because he knows there is potential for a hard fight" among religious groups in Guatemala, says Celso Lara Figueroa, a religion expert at the Center for Folklore Studies at San Carlos University in Guatemala City.

After 20 years of rapid growth, Guatemala's Evangelicals and other Protestants make up about 40 percent of the population, Mr. Lara estimates. Such a high percentage opens the way to conflict with the religious majority over differing religious customs and over the extent to which public officials, still mostly Catholic, accept the free practice of religions.

A number of analysts in Guatemala had worried that tensions would rise quickly if the protege of former military dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt - himself a born-again Evangelical - had won the presidency in a runoff election Jan. 7.

He did not. But some observers, remembering a rise in persecutions of Catholics during Gen. Rios Montt's dictatorship in the early '80s, say the potential for conflict over government treatment of religious groups remains strong. …

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