MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — When Nicaragua passed one of the strictest abortion laws in the hemisphere last week, critics charged the Catholic Church with flexing political muscle ahead of next week's presidential election.
Yet, to lobby for the bill, Catholics invited evangelical Protestants to join a massive protest last month – a rare act of collaboration and a window into evangelicals' growing political sway in this predominantly Catholic country.
Evangelicals in Nicaragua were once overlooked as outcasts. Now no political contender can afford to alienate them. All but one of the leading presidential candidates, including Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, supported their bid to ban all forms of abortion, even if a mother's life is in danger.
Their ascent has been among the most dramatic in Latin America. At the end of the 1970s, only five percent of Nicaraguans were evangelicals. Now they account for more than 20 percent – some say more than 30 percent – of the population. Their political clout is mounting as fast as the cavernous churches popping up along Managua's highways. They are running for office, partnering with Catholics, and forcing social change – which could augur a new exercise of power among evangelicals throughout the region.
"You can't talk about Nicaraguan society or politics now without talking about evangelicals," says Benjamin Cortes, rector of the Nicaraguan Evangelical University, a 12-year-old private university that sits in the shadow of Managua's Cathedral.
Evangelicals in Guatemala and Brazil also possess notable political influence. But Mr. Cortes says he believes that evangelicals in Nicaragua, one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere, have had success in politics because American missionaries overlooked this country throughout the 20th century.
That left Nicaraguans to hold leadership positions within churches big and small, he says, which naturally segued into politics.
The first major sign of evangelicals' ascent here came in 1996, when Guillermo Osorno, a Pentecostal pastor, formed the Christian Path Party and ran for president, finishing in a remarkable third place. His party also earned four seats in the legislature.
Today 21 members are running for the legislature and Mr. Osorno says his presidential hopes still flicker.
They are just a few of the nation's evangelicals seeking political office. "We've always had power in numbers, but we've not always used it," says Roberto Rojas, the vice president for the National Council of Evangelical Pastors of Nicaragua. Two years ago his wife, Elizabeth de Rojas, made a bid to become mayor of Managua. She dropped out before the race was over, but seeking office "gave us all hope" for the possibilities, Rev. Rojas says.
In the past year, Osorno has traveled to Peru and Ecuador to help evangelicals create political parties modeled after his own. He says he is planning a trip to Bolivia and hopes that evangelicals will increase their political clout across the region. "It's the only way Latin America is going to really change," he says.
That could mean a more conservative tide on social issues. Evangelicals across the region do not vote as a block, and many, such as Cortes, were against the ban on abortion under any circumstances. Some say their divisions have limited their political influence.
But Doug Petersen, who was area director for the Pentecostal Assemblies of God of Central America based in Costa Rica for 15 years starting in the mid-80s, says that on moral issues, such as abortion, they could come together. "I think the one area evangelicals do have huge impact [in Latin America] is where they feel threatened," he says.
No presidential candidate could afford to lose that vote, including Mr. Ortega, the revolutionary leader and archrival of the US during the Reagan administration. "For a lot of people in the West, it is surprising to learn that [the Sandinistas] would have such a conservative position on abortion," says Timothy Shah, a senior fellow in religion and world affairs at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "They are partly trying to attract conservative Catholics, but there is no doubt they are trying to attract the growing number of evangelicals, too."
Cortes estimates that about a third of the nation's evangelicals sympathize with Ortega, whose power coincided with expansive growth of evangelicals in Nicaragua. Mr. Petersen says he witnessed an attitude change toward minority religions throughout the 1980s.
"[Ortega] had an absolute major shift in the way he treated evangelicals," says Petersen, who says he was generously given permits to hold megaceremonies in Revolution Plaza. "To listen to Ortega he says he got to know [evangelicals], that they were among the poor.... And then there are others who say he found this to be a fertile political field," he says.
If anything, the ground is even more fertile today.
At a recent service at Comunidad Hosanna, a Pentecostal church in Managua, congregants lifted bibles into the air as rain thundered against the metal roof and 34 fans whirled. The vast space, which could easily accommodate two soccer fields, filled up as a 12-piece band livened up the crowd.
Many, such as Guillermo Lopez, say they feel more a part of the mainstream every day. "We are growing and that impacts behavior and society," says Mr. Lopez, a car salesman from Managua, who converted from Catholicism over six years ago.
For the presidential election this Sunday, a group of evangelical leaders will act as electoral observers across the country. "I think it's a historical moment in Nicaragua," says Sixto Ulloa, a Baptist pastor and an ombudsman for the government's human rights department. "It's the first time evangelical leaders have been trained to participate in the electoral process."
It is a tectonic shift in a country long ruled by Catholicism. Protestants and Catholics have suffered a tense relationship, perhaps best illustrated by the late Pope John Paul II in 1992 comparing Protestant "sects" to "ravenous wolves."
So when the Catholic Church reached out to evangelical leaders in Nicaragua for the abortion bill, Rojas was not without doubts. He says he didn't believe Nicaragua's evangelical community was ready to join forces with the Catholic Church.
So for their public protest, Rojas, who helped mobilize congregants, suggested that the two groups march from separate locations, converging only before reaching the National Assembly.
In the end, the march drew 20,000 evangelicals and 50,000 Catholics, he says. "It was extraordinary, to be standing there with us and all the bishops," says Rojas. "It made us realize how much power we have together."
The endeavor could inspire future movements, both in Nicaragua and across Latin America.
"If you look at the social values of evangelicals and devout Catholics, there's all kinds of overlap. Working together on them is what's new," says Petersen. "But throughout Latin America there is some real common ground, which will make it easier to cooperate in the future."
• Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.