GUATEMALA is being rocked by a religious transformation that is altering the political landscape in this war-torn country. Spurred both by the Army's persecution of the Roman Catholic Church and intense proselytizing from US-backed fundamentalist groups, evangelical Christians here have jumped from 2 percent of the population three decades ago to nearly 35 percent today.
This sweeping religious shift from the once-dominant Catholic church is redefining political and social development, and helping the Guatemalan Army maintain the upper hand in its war against tenacious leftist guerrillas.
The evangelical converts - mostly members of conservative Pentecostal sects in Guatemala's battered war zones - generally shun social organizing and share a dualistic view of the world in which the forces of God battle the forces of Satan. Both aspects make it easier for the government to assert political and military control in the countryside. And, as the evangelicals' gain weakens the centuries-long hold of the Catholic church, it is even fostering what some Guatemalans call a ``religious war.''
The evangelical movement is growing rapidly throughout troubled Central America, outpacing population growth by four times. But it is in Guatemala that it is spreading faster than anywhere else in the world. Guatemala boasts more than 300 sects, 8,500 churches, and nearly 3 million followers in a nation of 8.3 million people, according to the Association of Evangelical Ministers.
The explosion was first set off by a devastating earthquake in 1976. US fundamentalist groups, assisted by the Army, flooded the countryside with emergency aid and an appealing doctrine of personal salvation free from complex Catholic dogma.
But the religious contention between evangelicals and Catholics didn't openly appear until the early 1980s. According to prominent Catholics, evangelical pastors, and rural peasants, the roots lie in the Army's counterinsurgency campaign against the leftist guerrillas. As the war intensified in 1980, they say, the Army adopted a twin strategy: It persecuted Catholic organizations for their suspected ties to the revolutionary movement while giving special privileges to the more passive, right-wing evangelical sects.
``The Army here is like a god,'' says a Catholic priest in the northern province of El Quiche. ``People have to bow before it and if they don't, they either die or leave.... The Army says, `Catholics are communists, Protestants aren't. So take your pick.'''
Dozens of Catholic churches in the highland war zones were seized and turned into sandbagged Army garrisons. Hundreds of Catholic catechists and priests were killed. And hundreds of thousands of Catholics suddenly found it safer to become devout evangelicals.
``The principal reason so many people converted to evangelical faiths is that they didn't want to die,'' says National Assembly member Claudio Coxaj, a Catholic of Mayan descent and a member of the ruling Christian Democrats.
Evangelicals say such explanations are simplistic.
Juan Cedillo is pastor of the fast-growing Prince of Peace church in Nebaj, a mountain village that has found anything but peace on the front lines of Latin America's longest-running war. Watching the Sunday evening sky turn from dusk to darkness, the soft-spoken preacher says he and many followers left the Catholic church because the trauma of war taught them that man couldn't create heaven on earth.
``We found that the earthly battle doesn't change anything,'' Mr. Cedillo says. ``We must accept the suffering of this world in order to be saved by Jesus Christ in the world to come.''
Cedillo's church is one of 19 evangelical sects that have sprung up in this dusty six-block village. Dozens of indigenous women walk through its doorway with stoic expressions. Once inside, they seem to find an emotional escape from worldly sorrows.
Eyes closed, they sing, wail, and gyrate as the preacher shouts over the loudspeaker: ``In this world, there is no peace; in this world, there is no tranquillity. In heaven, there won't be any hunger; in heaven, there won't be any orphans.''
But evangelical churches offer more than just an escape from misery, according to Paul Townsend, a missionary who has worked for 15 years in the Nebaj area for the Summer Institute of Linguistics. They have also flourished, he says, because of their emphasis on the individual, on divine healing, and - especially for women victimized by their husbands' drinking and philandering - on clean living.
Mr. Townsend acknowledges, however, that many Catholics converted simply because they feared for their lives.
``People aren't dumb,'' he says. ``They'll jump to the big stick [if] that will save their hides. At that time, they saw evangelical churches being on the `in,' the Catholic church on the `out.'''
Catholic leaders claim that evangelical sects are being manipulated by the Army and the US government as tools in the counterinsurgency. By asking followers to accept suffering and withdraw from political and social groups, these critics say, evangelical sects have created a passive and divided peasantry - just what the Army needs to snuff out rebel support. Sociologist David Stoll calls it the ``model proletariat.''
It's not clear how much influence the Army wields over the evangelical movement. But the friendship, at least, runs deep.
One ex-Army colonel, for example, told the Monitor that he was in charge of installing hundreds of rural teachers to replace those who had fled or been killed in 1981: ``We named 100-percent evangelicals because we knew they wouldn't cause problems.''
Such favoritism became even stronger during the 1982-83 reign of Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt, an evangelical preacher who saw politics as a showdown between the forces of God (the Army) and Satan (the leftist guerrillas). He opened the gates even wider for US-based fundamentalist groups.
More recently, Minister of Defense H'ector Alejandro Gramajo - a Catholic - met privately with leaders of the Evangelical Alliance in November, reportedly to discuss their role in the development of the Army's ``model'' villages for returning refugees. Evangelical leaders acknowledged the meeting but refused to discuss its contents.
``We're not being patronized by the military,'' says missionary Townsend. ``But of course, there is a certain amount of practicality in having good relations.''
According to Catholic leaders and leading opposition politicians, US-Guatemala relations improved in 1982 not so much because of a reduction in Army human-rights violations, but because of pressures on President Reagan by hard-line US fundamentalist groups.
In a sizzling pastoral letter released in January, the Catholic church charged that the US government helped evangelicals because it saw ``that non-Catholic groups could effectively help consolidate its economic and political power in Latin America.''