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In Latin America, a Religious Turf War

Catholicism: The state of the church worldwide

April 15, 2005|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — Latecomers have to hunt for a seat at the First Baptist Church of Copacabana. By 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, the pews are full, the drummers and guitarists warmed up, and the faithful are ready to meet God.

"Thanks be to your name," the pastor prays earnestly, his brow furrowed. "Be among us."

A chorus of amens bursts from the congregation. Some members have their hands raised. Onstage, young men and women in T-shirts and jeans launch into a ballad-like hymn of devotion, kicking off an hour and a half of often joyous, sometimes contemplative worship.

So begins one of thousands of weekly services in Protestant churches across Brazil. Although this largely tropical nation has more Roman Catholics than any other country in the world, it is witnessing a boom in evangelical Protestantism that could dramatically alter the religious landscape in the next 20 years.

Across Latin America, home to nearly half the world's Catholics, believers are increasingly abandoning the Vatican's brand of Christianity in favor of the evangelical variety, a trend that will pose one of the biggest challenges for the next pope.

"The Reformation finally arrived in Latin America, four centuries after starting in Europe," said Dean Brackley, a professor of theology at the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador.

For Catholicism to stay relevant, analysts say, cardinals now gathered in Rome to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II must pick someone ready to grapple with the concerns of folks like Carlos Eduardo Valente de Abreu, half a world away.

"I didn't feel very welcome in the Catholic Church," said Valente, 31, an information technology consultant in Rio de Janeiro. "I couldn't agree with what they preached -- the images of Christ suffering. Also, I didn't feel much sincerity."

What he found at First Baptist in Copacabana was a strong sense of community in a disorienting world. Experts say that is a major draw of evangelical churches, especially among migrants.

Many converts are attracted to the pop-style music and dynamic liturgies, which are more suited to contemporary tastes than is the traditional Catholic Mass. Others cherish teachings that emphasize a direct, personal relationship with God and, sometimes, the promise of material reward for spiritual rectitude.

Add to these elements the evangelical movement's proselytizing zeal, its savvy use of mass media and a nimble ability to set up shop in storefronts, schools and living rooms, and the result has been spectacular growth over the last 25 years, in spite of John Paul's frequent trips to Latin America to shore up the faith.

In countries where Catholics once accounted for more than 90% of the population, evangelicals now constitute a significant religious minority, sometimes with social and political clout beyond their numbers.

In Chile, Honduras and Brazil, for example, about 15% of the population describes itself as evangelical Protestant. The figure rises to 22% in El Salvador; in Guatemala, it's 25%. In Mexico's southern Chiapas state, local press reports estimate the evangelical population to be 36% of adults.

Paraguay, albeit still overwhelmingly Catholic, now has its first evangelical president, Nicanor Duarte Frutos. President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia made news when he tried reaching out to evangelicals, who now make up about 10% of the country's population.

"This is about a global phenomenon," said Father Francisco Nino, editor of the Catholic newspaper El Catolicismo in Bogota. "The other religious movements constitute a challenge for the action of the church. We can't ignore the growth of the non-Catholic movements."

Evangelical Christianity began making major inroads in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, a turbulent period of civil war and political polarization that affected the Catholic Church as well. The clergy was riven by political divisions, with some clerics supporting leftist rebels and others favoring right-wing governments.

In war-torn Nicaragua, conservative Christian relief agencies and evangelical missionaries preaching a fervent anti-communist gospel were a regular presence at camps of the right-wing Contra militia along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. American televangelist Pat Robertson was among the Contra movement's most active promoters.

In other places, evangelical groups billed themselves as a haven from the tumult.

"The people don't want a polemic," said Edgardo Bertrand, pastor of one of El Salvador's largest evangelical churches. "They want God."

Many of Bertrand's flock at the Christian Jerusalem Embassy in San Salvador are converts weary of the political activism that roiled the Catholic Church in past decades. Evangelicals say their emphasis is on personal transformation through faith, not social or political organizing.

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