Protestant sects find fertile soil in troubled Central America

``America loves you,'' booms Jimmy Swaggart to a packed stadium of born-again Christians. ``The reason for the fighting in El Salvador is because there is hate,'' shouts the conservative American TV evangelist over the 160,000-watt sound system. ``Jesus will take the hate from your heart. You will love your enemies.''

The message washes over the crowd, many of whom seem to be in various states of rapture. Neatly dressed men in short-sleeved shirts and ties and women wearing white lace scarfs stand, their eyes closed, with one hand raised aloft, the other clutching their Bibles.

In Central America, a region wracked by poverty, violence, and civil war, Protestant evangelical sects have found fertile terrain. These sects now claim almost 20 percent of the population in the region and are still growing. The Roman Catholic Church, traditionally the dominant religious force, refutes that figure. No independent sources can confirm the figure, but most observers agree the sects are expanding.

They tend to grow in spurts, following periods of social upheaval. In El Salvador, for example, the sects grew rapidly during the 1930s, after a failed peasant rebellion, and again in the 1970s, when increasing numbers of peasants were forced off the land and faced major social dislocations, such as urban migration, family disintegration, and alcoholism. But the greatest growth came at the height of the death-squad killings in the early 1980s.

``The evangelical churches have grown the quickest in the last five years with the crisis - in the time of the great massacres, when we'd go out in the street and hear gunfire on all sides,'' says Carlos Oriano, local branch director of evangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club.

Being an evangelical provided a form of safety. ``If one is an evangelical, he won't have problems with the military. If he is a Catholic he may have problems,'' says a high-ranking Catholic Church official. Many Catholic priests and lay people have been killed by the military or right-wing death squads in Central America because they were considered subversive.

While sectors of the Catholic Church in Central America urge social change and a more equitable distribution of resources in the region's highly unequal societies, the politically conservative evangelical sects preach personal salvation. Many have a millennial message - that the end of the world is at hand and the faithful must prepare themselves for Jesus' second coming.

Because of the evangelicals' strong anticommunist stance and their rejection of efforts at social change, the US-backed governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have found the sects useful. In Guatemala, for example, evangelicals were recruited to head the Army-run civil defense patrols, especially during the rule of born-again Christian Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt (1982-83).

In El Salvador, US-based evangelical churches are assisting US Agency for International Development (AID) programs in relief and refugee work. AID invited one US-based evangelical group, World Relief, to run projects that the Catholic Church, mainstream Protestant churches, and other independent relief organizations refused to associate with, because these groups said the projects were part of the Army's counterinsurgency effort.

Many Catholic liberals in Latin America suspect the US is orchestrating a region-wide campaign to promote the sects in an attempt to undermine the more socially-involved Catholic Church.

US policymakers were disturbed by the Catholic Church's shift away from its traditional support for US-backed military governments following Vatican II and the 1968 bishops' meeting in Medell'in, Colombia, which committed the church to promoting a ``preferential option for the poor.'' At the end of a Latin America fact-finding trip for Richard Nixon in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller wrote: ``The Catholic Church has ceased to be a reliable ally for the US and the guarantor of social stability in the continent.''

In 1980, President-elect Reagan's Latin America strategists noted the necessity of countering liberation theology in the Sante Fe document, which outlined how to combat Latin America's leftist challenge.

Catholics also say the church's weaknesses have aided the sects. Foremost is the small number of priests. There are only 350, half foreign, in El Salvador, a country of 5 million. In contrast, the largest sect, the Assemblies of God, has over 800 pastors ministering to approximately 200,000 people. One reason for the discrepancy is that a priest's training takes seven years, while some evangelical pastors are virtually self-ordained. Another reason is the highly disciplined life required of a Catholic priest.

``In some rural areas, the priest visits only once a month,'' notes one diplomat. ``In the US, if you had a drinking problem or a problem with your wife you'd go to a social worker or a psychiatrist. Here people don't go to psychiatrists. They want to talk to a priest, but the priest isn't there.''

Observers say the emotionally cathartic evangelical services provide a release for those traumatized by the violence. ``But,'' says a nongovernment political analyst, ``it also absolves you of all social responsibility. You're only responsible for yourself and your personal salvation. It leads to political apathy.''

While the evangelical sects claim to be apolitical, critics charge that this apolitical stance, merged with their strong anticommunism, make the sects a strong bulwark of the status quo.

Wealthy Salvadoreans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans are joining evangelical sects. The Assemblies of God just opened their first church in San Salvador's exclusive Escal'on district in the former mansion of one of the country's wealthiest families. The California-based group, Full Gospel Businessmen, holds Saturday prayer breakfasts in the fanciest hotels. Many high military officers often attend.

Mr. Swaggart met and prayed with President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte, his family, and Cabinet. He also met with some top Army commanders and officers and addressed the military academy. Many officers have recently joined the sects.

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