Christian Sects Clash In Latin America

Catholicism's hold on Latin America is under challenge by evangelicals and other Protestants. And in North America, Indians are pursuing legal means to win full religious rights.

EVANGELICAL Angel Urbina Sanchez lifts his straw hat to reveal the lingering welts and scars of his faith. On Feb. 8, some 20 to 40 local Roman Catholic campesinos pummeled him with stones and clubs.

In this remote Mazahua Indian village of maguey, cows, and corn, a handful of Pentecostal followers are stubbornly rending centuries of tradition.

"Until four years ago, I never knew anyone who wasn't Catholic," says Mr. Urbina, standing outside his wooden, dirt-floor shack.

While not the norm, incidents of persecution are occurring with some frequency in Mexico, as communities struggle to accept a dramatic societal change.

Since the Spanish conquest, the Catholic Church has woven itself into the fabric of Mexican life, adopting indigenous gods as saints and merging traditional festivals with Christian holidays. But in the last two decades, Protestant and fundamentalist evangelical denominations have boomed from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. About 10 percent of Latin America's 450 million inhabitants now belong to non-Catholic churches. In Guatemala, one-third of the population is non-Catholic, including the presiden t and vice president.

Mexico's 1990 census lists 90 percent of the population as Catholic. But evangelists claim the census-takers gave them only two options: Christian or Protestant. Many evangelists signed up as Christians and were counted as Catholics. The National Forum of Evangelical Christian Churches in Mexico City counts 17.5 percent of Mexicans among its followers.

What no one disputes is that the "new" religions are growing much faster than the Catholic Church. The reaction by Catholic officials has been blunt.

"The church does not want to ignite a crusade against Protestants, because the time for a holy war is past," said the Vatican's representative in Mexico, Geronimo Prigione, on March 17. But he went on to criticize the recruiting methods of other churches, saying, "This is unjust and we reject and condemn it. The sects, like flies, have to be removed."

At first, the Catholic Church here tried to ignore the trend, says Rodolfo Casillas Ramirez of the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico City. "Now we're seeing a counteroffensive based on discrediting the newcomers. They're described as 'agents of imperialism not Christians, but members of a social movement, a sect sent by foreigners to destroy national and cultural values," says Mr. Casillas.

The newer religions are appealing, he says, because they're perceived as more accessible and offer simple answers. "People are told AIDS is the result of not respecting God's laws. A new discipline is applied: Don't drink or smoke or have extramarital relations, and your life will improve. And it does," says Casillas. "If the father stops drinking, the family has more money and the entire religious community provides positive reinforcement by celebrating his progress."

Individual Catholic parishes are responding with healing services and forming Bible study and community groups. One program starting in Mexico is modeled after a successful Brazilian project. Small groups of church members go out into poorer communities to study the Bible and provide social and economic assistance.

Noting such changes, the Rev. Manuel Olimon Nolasco, a historian at the Pontifical University of Mexico, says: "The role of evangelists can't be perceived as completely negative. Latin America is becoming a pluralist society. This society believes more in personal choice than in tradition."

But it is the breaking of time-honored religious-social traditions that causes conflict. For example, last month everyone in the town of La Chaca was asked to chip in about a full day's wages to pay for the annual festival of the town's Catholic patron, Saint Isidro. Members of three non-Catholic churches refused, but were then ordered to pay by the mayor.

THE trouble in Guadalupe Chico began in a similar way. Until last November, the 100-odd Catholic families left Urbina and his aunt's family to their own beliefs. But then three more families converted to the Pentecostal faith, and all stopped working on or paying weekly "support" for the construction of a Catholic chapel and other public works projects.

"They're supposedly of the same community, they're obligated to work with us on building the school and medical clinic," says Maria Guadalupe Ramirez Morales, making no mention of the church project. But equally important to Mrs. Ramirez seemed to be the Pentecostal women's refusal to participate in the Saturday tradition of making flower arrangements for the Catholic saints.

Tensions rose. On Feb. 6, one of the Pentecostal women was assaulted. Two days later, according to Mrs. Ramirez, separate male and female work crews were being formed (as is tradition), when Urbina walked by and began insulting the women. Ramirez says Urbina struck her with a stick. She called for help and the male work crew came running and beat Urbina. The group then ransacked the houses of three more Pentecostals.

"Lies," says Urbina. "They said if we didn't bring flowers for the Virgin, we would regret it for the rest of our days. They were waiting for me when I walked up the path."

All parties now say the dispute is behind them. "We don't mix with them, they don't mix with us. We're at peace now," says Ramirez.

But Urbina, still shaken, refuses to leave his land. The three ruined homes were supposed to be rebuilt by the nearby municipal government in 30 days, but nothing has been done.

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