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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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,"
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
Meanwhile, indigenous peasants continue to migrate to cities -- and to
"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
Page last updated/revised 010401
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page