Latin America’s Overlooked Persecuted Church

1. What does persecution in Latin America look like?

Persecution of Christians in Latin America is a complex picture and results from the interplay between an overall lack of security and social exclusion, experienced by the majority of Latin American citizens. The high degree of violence particularly affects Christians who are perceived to be a threat to the hegemony and influence of criminal organizations.

Organized corruption and tribal antagonism are the two main persecution engines in Latin America. Three more can be distinguished: communist oppression, ecclesiastical arrogance and aggressive secularism.

  • Organized corruption: the most widely spread and developed persecution engine in Latin America. It is characterized by underperforming governments, lack of rule of law, endemic corruption and a large influence and presence of criminal organizations that can operate with impunity.
  • Tribal antagonism: characterized by a revival of traditional religions and the intolerance following from it. These indigenas live isolated in rural areas and seek to maintain their ancestral traditions, which are generally a mix of indigenous paganism and popular Catholicism. Indigenous converts to Christianity face all sorts of harassment, exclusion from basic social services, torture and even displacement.
  • Communist oppression: this engine may seem to have disappeared from Latin America, but is still very much present in Cuba, and in different forms in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
  • Denominational protectionism: this is a persecution engine that is quickly becoming less important in the region. The legal status of protestant churches still remains an issue in some countries in the region.
  • Secular intolerance: A rapidly emerging persecution engine throughout the whole region is secular intolerance. It expresses itself through a strong push on “human rights” and “gender mainstreaming” which in practice reduce the freedom of (religious) expression. It is also accompanied by an increasing lack of understanding what religion is about and about the role of religious organizations in the public sphere.

Moreover, while it’s too early to speak of “Islamic extremism” in Latin America, Islam as a religion is gaining some support. Examples hereof is the existence of a community of indigenous Muslims in Chiapas, Mexico, the opening of a formal mosque in Bogotá, Colombia, and the warm ties between the government of Venezuela and the Islamic regime of Iran.

Latin America is home to over 550 million Christians, comprising 92,4% of the total population. The vast majority are Catholics (487 million), but around 60 million are Protestants, of which nearly 50 million identify as Evangelicals. It’s difficult to establish which proportion of the Christian population is strongly persecuted, but in general terms organized corruption to some extent affects all Christians living in highly violent areas (particularly Colombia, Mexico and Central America), tribal antagonism is present in countries with large indigenous populations (Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia), communist oppression is present in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, and aggressive secularism is present in all countries of the region.

 

2. What countries in Latin America are experiencing rising persecution?

Even though only Colombia is part of the World Watch List Top 50, most countries in Latin America experience a certain degree of persecution. Five countries will be named specifically here:

  • Colombia ranks 35 on the World Watch List 2015. The main persecution engine in this country is organized corruption, but tribal antagonism, ecclesiastical arrogance and aggressive secularism are also present.
  • In Mexico, the same persecution engines as in Colombia are present, although tribal antagonism is probably the most visible persecution engine. In a trip to the North of Mexico where I investigated the impact of organized corruption on the church I spoke with a Christian girl. She was abducted along with other people by the Zetas, one of Northern Mexico’s criminal gangs. She had every reason to fear for her life and that of her 10-year-old niece who was abducted as well. But she stood up and took authority. She told them: ‘I am a Christian, you are not going to rape me. You are not allowed. You are going to release me and my niece and you are going to give us food. I also want for you take off all your Santa Muerte amulets.’ Amazingly enough, they all did what she said. This girl prayed with these men and all the people abducted. Nothing happened to her and after three days, she and her niece were released!
  • After the severe persecution of decades ago, the picture of persecution in Cuba has become more subtle. There is a form of communist oppression which mostly manifests itself in government restrictions.
  • Venezuela is a country with a revolutionary government that wishes to have maximum influence on the people. Tensions between president Nicolás Maduro and the leadership of the Catholic church (and also the evangelical church) have been growing. I was impressed by the positive role of the Catholic Church in the country. During the nineteenth century, they have been heavily persecuted and it has resulted in a humble and authentic church trying to give an answer to the government’s pressure. This church is victim to persecution but knows how to deal with it, is well organized and communicates actively in society.
  • Bolivia: in 2007, president Evo Morales came into power. It evoked a change: the door was opened for criminal activities and coca plantations (now fully legal). There have been reports of government restrictions for Pentecostal and evangelical churches.

 

3. What is the future outlook for Christians in the region with respect to persecution?

Organized crime will grow. The center of organized corruption will further move from Colombia to Mexico and Central America, as a result of Colombia’s crackdown on crime. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are three extremely violent countries that border Mexico on the south. A Christian widow who feld her home country El Salvador shared about her experience: My husband was a pastor and was actively involved in speaking up for human rights. He became a threat for local gangs and was killed.

A revival of indigenous cultures can also be witnessed in Latin America, with pre-Columbian traditions and beliefs gaining more followers. This indigenous revival has both positive and negative sides. It’s positive because it brings ancient cultures back to life. It’s negative when it develops into a persecution engine – tribal antagonism – by the imposition of pagan rites upon indigenous communities, excluding converts to Christianity from basic social services, and installing traditional government systems which in practice are highly antidemocratic. The indigenous revival is also negative because it leads paganism and witchcraft to regain strength.

Next to organized corruption and tribal antagonism, secular intolerance will become widely spread throughout the whole region as international development agencies will increasingly condition their support to the implementation of the self-determination agenda and other liberal policies. Its presence will be felt in public universities, the education system in general, and even in the family sphere.

Below the radar, warning signs can be seen in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia or Nicaragua, which fall under the Cuban sphere of influence – communist oppression –, which expresses itself through a gradual general limitation of the freedom of expression and restrictions of Christian social initiatives.

Finally, the good news is that denominational protectionism will further decrease, with the church maturing and moving towards greater unity.

 

4. What does persecution uniquely look like in Latin America?

Occultism in Latin America is a characteristic trait of the persecution dynamics in Latin America. It expresses itself through three distinct, while at the same, interwoven, angles: a) the growing presence of Satanism as a religion, b) witchcraft as an integral part of the indigenous traditional belief system and c) the influence of indigenous beliefs in catholic rites.

The influence of Satanic cults and witchcraft is increasing and spreading throughout the region. For example, the Santa Muerte movement in Mexico came into existence about thirty years ago and turned violent in recent years. Members do not only kill and kidnap for the money but also to serve Satan. This results in very cruel forms of violence, as is illustrated by a story from Mexico: A pastor was abducted by a criminal gang that was member of a Satanic cult. His family was ordered to pay ransom. His wife and family succeeded in collecting it and the criminals came to take the money. The pastor’s wife asked them: ‘But where is my husband?’ ‘He is at the beginning of your street,’ they told her. When she went there, her husband was there. Only he was not alive. She found him in a plastic garbage bag, killed and dismembered.

Overall, many organized crime organizations are involved in occult practices, which they use to advance their interests. Examples of this are sending spells and curses to their enemies and invocating spirits to defend their causes. There are also stories of spiritual (also “Christian”) leaders that cast spells to protect drug transports and the properties of drug traffickers. From this perspective, they consider praying Christians to be a real threat.

 

5. Why is Latin America’s Persecuted Church In Danger of Being Overlooked Today?

Latin America’s persecuted church risks being overlooked because the persecution dynamics that are present on the continent are not easily discernible. The main reason is that the communist guerrillas in the Andean countries are no longer the most important drivers of persecution. The Peruvian Shining Path was defeated and the Colombian communist guerrillas, such as the FARC and the  ELN, have been weakened. Moreover, both the FARC and the ELN have lost their ideological feathers and have shifted their focus to the very lucrative drug trafficking. This doesn’t mean, however, that persecution in Latin America is over.

The second reason is the complexity of the persecution dynamics in the region. Indeed, persecution dynamics in Latin America are so complex and intertwined with the overall presence of lawlessness, violence and poverty that it is difficult to external observers to distinguish what is persecution and what is not.

The third reason is that is most countries in Latin America, with the exception of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, persecution does not come from the state. Many people associate persecution with vertical pressures from the state, but the reality of Latin America is that of horizontal pressures coming from criminal organizations, revolutionary insurgencies, tribal authorities or social actors of different types for different persecution engines.

The fourth reason is that persecution of Christians happens although they are the majority in all Latin American countries. The reason for this is that although many Christians can function freely, Christians and churches that are actively involved in society or speak out are targeted by criminal organizations and tribal leaders.

 

6. Why does the Latin American church matter?

Latin America is the only continent in the world with a Christian majority. The Latin American church is also one of the most vital churches in the world, with both the presence of strong historically established churches and the dynamism of the so-called New Religious Movements. Against the background of secularisation and dechristianisation trends in Europe and in the West in general the Latin American church is unique and strategic because it has effectively become one of the centers of gravity of the global church.

Yet there is also another reason why the Latin American church matters – the sheer strategic potential of the Christians here for the global church. It was Latin American theologians like René Padilla and Samuel Escobar that gave the Lausanne movement the concept of integral mission, where it was concluded that the Gospel must be changing the social structures of society before it can be said to have come to the culture.  As world Christianity becomes a southern hemisphere phenomenon, the Latin American church must be tapped all the more for its insight and assistance.

If the vast Latin American church can waken up to the extent of persecution in its midst, not only will it provide a new lifeline for the persecuted churches in the region, but release new resources for the worldwide persecuted church of which it as yet knows little.

Dennis P. Petri
Dennis P. Petri is Director of Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics. A political scientist by training, he specializes in comparative politics with a specific interest in Latin America. He is currently working on a dissertation about religious freedom at VU University Amsterdam.

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