Bahai News - Bolivia's Christian Soldiers Protestant fundamentalists advance in a fast-changing social terrain Thursday, January 4, 2001

Bolivia's Christian Soldiers Protestant fundamentalists advance in a fast-changing social terrain

Mike Ceaser, Chronicle Foreign Service

Tiwanaku, Bolivia -- Almost 500 years ago, Spanish conquistadors destroyed this pre-Incan capital and used the stones from its ruins to build a Catholic church.

The Spaniards' efforts to install Roman Catholicism were remarkably successful in Bolivia and across Latin America. But the church's 500-year monopoly is slipping as Protestant sects, mostly from the United States, entice tens of thousands of Bolivia's Indian majority to join their ranks.

That change is evident in Tiwanaku, a village of some 700 inhabitants near the border with Peru where a 4-century-old Catholic church has lost scores of its faithful to five Protestant churches in the past 25 years.

On a recent weekday, several dozen members of the Church of God of Prophecy gathered in front of their adobe church for services mostly in the indigenous Aymara language. Around the corner, other town residents were attending services offered by the Salvation Army and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"We are advancing, we are growing," said Guzman Rojas, the pastor of the Church of God of Prophecy, who said his church now has 10,000 members nationwide.

Bolivia's constitution guarantees religious freedom while designating Catholicism as the official religion. The Ministry of Foreign Relations and Worship lists 261 non-Catholic denominations, most of them registered after 1960.

They range from such long-established Protestant denominations as the Baptists and the Lutherans to the more recently established Bahai and Buddhist faiths. In the 1990 census, about 80 percent of Bolivians identified themselves as Catholics and 10 percent as Protestants.

"We are experiencing the never-before-seen possibility that people can construct their relation with the sacred not solely through the Catholic Church but however they like," said Hugo Jose Suarez, a sociology professor and the author of several books on religion in Bolivia.

Suarez credits the growth of Protestant fundamentalism to rapid social changes in recent decades, including a huge migration to urban areas by indigenous peasants, who make up 55 percent of the population.

"Faced with the aggression of a hostile world, they join new churches and are able to rebuild social ties," he said.

The increasing numbers of Protestant converts in Bolivia reflect a Latin American trend. In 1960, the region had only 7 million Protestants. By 1990, the number had soared to 51 million, according to the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade.

In Bolivia, an Andean nation of 8 million that is South America's poorest, many poor are attracted to Pentacostalism. The fundamentalist movement interprets the Bible literally, uses catchy music, easy-to-read scriptures and even trances, and claims miracle cures and exorcisms.

In a 1991 visit to Brazil, Pope John Paul II urged the Catholic Church to crusade against "false images" -- an unmistakable reference to the evangelicals.

As it does elsewhere in South America, the Catholic Church in Bolivia tries to resist encroaching religions.

Television priests are going head to head with Protestant televangelists, and Catholic bookstores sell decals to display on home windows that read: "We are Catholics and are not interested in changing our religion. Please don't insist."

The "charismatic renewal" -- a fervent brand of Catholicism -- is attracting converts. Its services often resemble a Baptist tent revival and are controversial among traditional Catholics because of the similarities to evangelical practices.

"The (charismatic) movement is arresting this mountain of evangelical groups," said Fernando Zarate, the charismatics' La Paz youth coordinator, who says the movement now has 40,000 adherents.

Still, the fundamentalists advance. Ramon Conde Mamani, a sociologist with the Andean Oral History Workshop in La Paz, says evangelical ceremonies, which include communal eating and singing, are a good fit with the indigenous culture of Bolivia's altiplano, or high plains region. And unlike Catholic priests, most Protestant pastors are recruited from the local community.

"The average minister is another Aymara, so there is more affinity," he said. "The average priest is white or mestizo and is always seen as a stranger."

The Catholic Church is also suffering from a shortage of priests.

The Rev. Claudio Patty Choque, who directs Tiwanaku's university and is the priest responsible for 27 nearby communities, complains, "I can't do it all."

Choque estimates that during the past quarter-century, the number of Protestant churches in his region has ballooned from seven to more than 50. He blames the proliferation on Catholics' shallow understanding of their own religion, a weakness that Monsignor Sergio Gualberti, auxiliary bishop of the city of Santa Cruz, also recognizes.

"Many people are Catholic by tradition and not by personal conviction," Gualberti said.

Nicholas Rasheta, a 21-year-old Mormon missionary in Bolivia and a native of Texas, agrees. "Most of the Catholics we teach are Catholics in name but don't really practice their religion," he said.

Many Bolivians also embrace Protestant sects in pursuit of what they believe to be a more wholesome lifestyle. While the drinking of alcohol plays a prominent part in many Catholic celebrations, such as the Lenten festival of carnival, many Protestant sects reject it.

Sagundino Avaros, 29, a peasant who lives on the outskirts of Tiwanaku, said that when he became active in the Church of God of Prophecy three years ago, his life "changed completely."

"I was bad, a drunkard. I did bad things. Now, I live with love for everyone."

Meanwhile, indigenous peasants continue to migrate to cities -- and to Protestant churches.

"Within a few months of conversion," said sociologist Suarez, the peasant "has new answers, new friends and a new social network."

©Copyright 2001, San Francisco Chronicle

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