How Mennonites Came to Be Isolated in the Chaco

NEARLY 1 million Mennonites are scattered throughout the world in about 60 countries according to the Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pa. Just under half live in the United States and Canada, while 90,000 live in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Mennonites trace their roots to the Anabaptists, a 16th-century breakaway group that believed the Protestant Reformation in Europe did not go far enough in separating church and state. Many Mennonites reject political involvement and are pacifists.

The religion's name comes from a Dutch reformer, Menno Simons, a former Roman Catholic priest who converted to pacifist Anabaptism. The Amish broke off in 1693, led by a Swiss Mennonite who believed Mennonite doctrine and practice was too relaxed.

From the outset, the religion encountered persecution. Anabaptists defied government-run churches and refused to serve in armies or swear allegiance to the state.

Thousands were tortured and burned at the stake. Over the years, they were forced to migrate from country to country. In 1789, thousands left Germany to seek asylum in Russia after receiving a personal invitation from Catherine the Great.

In 1927, 7,500 Canadian Mennonites migrated to Paraguay after a new Canadian law forbade them from teaching both German and religion in their schools. Norwegian adventurer Fred Engen was sent to find them a homeland. When Mr. Engen reached the Chaco, he wrote: "I have found the Mennonite promised land."

The Paraguayan government was eager to receive the Mennonites, since the nation was involved in a territorial dispute over the Chaco with neighboring Bolivia and wanted to populate the desolate region.

Five years later, the two nations fought South America's deadliest war of the century. Between 1932-1935, some 90,000 soldiers were killed during the "Chaco War." The Mennonite community was not directly involved in the conflict.

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