Visiting Pope Will Find Rising Tide Of Protestantism in Latin America Visiting Pope Will Find Rising Tide Of Protestantism in Latin America BY: By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ON a sunny morning in a downtown park in this Central American capital, a young man holding a microphone tells a rapt crowd of his rescue from liquor and lust by the word of the Lord.

He found that salvation, he says, in the Bible he holds high above his head. As the music from the electronic keyboard behind him swells, raised hands begin to wave in sync, and soon the stacks of leaflets for the young preacher's Evangelical church have disappeared.

This is just another day in the Protestant evangelization of Guatemala, but it could be many places in Latin America - a street corner in Santiago, Chile; a televised service in Brazil; a new Pentecostal church opening in Chiapas, Mexico.

It is into this climate of religious fervor that Pope John Paul II arrives Feb. 5 for a week-long trip to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Venezuela.

In addition to the message of succor he will bring to Latin America's poor, the pope will be calling back the millions of Latin American Roman Catholics that experts say convert each year to various Protestant - primarily Evangelical and Pentacostal - churches.

Considered for more than four centuries a nearly fissureless rock of the Catholic Church, Latin America today is estimated by experts to be nearing 15 percent Protestant. In some regions, such as Central America, southern Mexico, or parts of Brazil, the percentage is much higher. Protestant leaders estimate that 8,000 Latin Catholics convert every day. The Catholic Church estimates 10,000 converted in the early '80s.

Experts cite myriad reasons for Latin America's shifting religious makeup, from a movement toward more pluralistic thinking in a democratic age and the growing influence of American religious movements to the attraction of religions that offer hope for better material and spiritual conditions now.

''For five centuries the Catholic Church has told Latin Americans it would save their soul,'' says Adoniram Gaxiola, a Pentacostal minister in Mexico City. ''But we tell them of a faith that saves their bodies and their souls and improves their lives today, and they come.''

At the same time, however, John Paul II is expected to address the religious disharmony troubling a number of Latin countries. ''If the pope is coming here it is because he knows there is potential for a hard fight'' among religious groups in Guatemala, says Celso Lara Figueroa, a religion expert at the Center for Folklore Studies at San Carlos University in Guatemala City.

After 20 years of rapid growth, Guatemala's Evangelicals and other Protestants make up about 40 percent of the population, Mr. Lara estimates. Such a high percentage opens the way to conflict with the religious majority over differing religious customs and over the extent to which public officials, still mostly Catholic, accept the free practice of religions.

A number of analysts in Guatemala had worried that tensions would rise quickly if the protege of former military dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt - himself a born-again Evangelical - had won the presidency in a runoff election Jan. 7.

He did not. But some observers, remembering a rise in persecutions of Catholics during Gen. Rios Montt's dictatorship in the early '80s, say the potential for conflict over government treatment of religious groups remains strong.

Evangelical groups in Mexico say their ''fight'' for full religious freedom is more subtle, but nonetheless significant. ''We may not have the overt religious confrontation of some Central American countries, but the Catholic Church feels its hegemony threatened here,'' says Reverend Gaxiola of Mexico City's Mount Sinai Pentacostal Church. ''That makes for a constant confrontation - over maintaining control for the Catholic Church, and over equal treatment under the law for us.''

The issue of religion's access to the mass media is one of the prime concerns of Mexico's Evangelicals. They emphasize that only two Latin countries, Mexico and Cuba, forbid regular religious programming on television.

''Even Cuba is beginning to bend and open up a little on this point,'' says Abner Lopez, minister of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Mexico City.

But leaders like Reverend Lopez say the Catholic Church manages to broadcast masses on stations to which it has connections. That, say Protestant leaders, is just one example of how the church and entrenched political powers work together to keep religious freedom in Mexico unfulfilled.

The Protestant leaders were heartened when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon received a delegation of 18 of them for the first time in his presidency Jan. 22.

Although few analysts expect one event like a pope's visit to have any big effect on continuing conversion to Protestantism, some say the general trend is a slowing of the conversion rate anyway.

''The Evangelicals today make up somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of Guatemala's population, and we can safely say they've reached their top,'' says Ronalth Ochaeta Argueta, director of human rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala City.

Many of Guatemala's conversions came during the dictatorship years when many peasants were afraid to say they were anything but followers of Rios Montt's church, he says. The Catholic Church is also paying closer attention to its followers' daily needs, Mr. Ochaeta adds.

In fact, if any form of religious belief is growing particularly rapidly in Latin America's rural areas, it's that of indigenous peoples, some observers claim. ''It's really the religious practices of the Mayas that we see growing here,'' says Guatemala's Mr. Lara.

That is not a negative trend in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Ochaeta says, since the church has accepted a mixing of traditional pre-Hispanic and Christian beliefs ever since carrying out its spiritual conquest in the 16th century. Lara also approves of the trend, depicting it as a brake on what he considers the ''globalizing influence'' of the Evangelical Protestant expansion.

Evangelicals counter that their ranks will continue to grow as long as Latin America is home to tens of millions of poor and spiritually impoverished individuals who aren't satisfied with promises of a better afterlife.

''We are more able to provide the Evangelical message people hunger for today,'' Lopez says. ''Over the course of 500 years, the Catholic Church has lost that message.''

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