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Latin America PDF Print E-mail

Julio Millan
Interdenominational Evangelical Federation, Venezuela

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

I would like to read some historical quotations that reflect the past and present of the religious situation in Latin America.

“The Supreme Council is requested to... forbid any new issue. . . that is diametrically opposed to the stability of the only sacred and true religion. That dissemination is dangerous to universal wellbeing, the purity of customs and the safety of government itself. Such tolerance prepares an inevitable harm to present and future generations that will lead to disunion and discord, disorder and fatal anarchy.’’

“The problem of cults and minorities is not religious. It is a matter of state security because it has to do with national identity. And it is fundamental for the country’s safety and defense. Our Latin American countries are fundamentally Catholic, and this is an essential element within the identity of our people.’’

Christianity is almost 2,000 years old. In this period we have preached the most beautiful lessons of Jesus. However, it is only the lesson of 2,000 years of the theory of tolerance that we have with us today. We have not learned how to love. Not even among Christians, as evidenced by what is happening today in Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda. The same occurs in Latin America, and has from the day the first conquistador set foot there.

None of you is unaware of the intolerance of the first European missions throughout the American continent. With the exception of some Jesuit missions close to Paraguay in the 17th century, missionaries generally destroyed the existing religious traditions of the American aborigines, North, Central, and South. However, what I feel is even more serious is that after the Roman Catholic religion was officially established throughout the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in America, intolerance continued toward new immigrants, principally Christian non-Catholics.

I believe this is a contradiction of the Christian lesson. It is the response of the desire to control and monopolize from an intolerant heart. History has proved that the desire to control and monopolize truth compromises our loyalty to the word of God. We have attempted to force people to be Christian, but this is not freedom. God did not force Adam and Eve to love Him. Otherwise, He would have destroyed our freedom.

Between 1810 and 1825, most Latin American countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela—were liberated from Spanish and Portuguese dominance. In barely 15 years, practically all Spanish-speaking America became politically independent based on republican revolutionary ideas that came from France and the United States. Liberator Simon Bolivar stated that Latin America cannot be governed... Bolivar was referring to conflicts between the Creoles who were attempting to control government and imitate the economic progress of northern countries. The result was a series of dictators who imposed regimes to obtain order.

Although the first constitutions recognized Catholicism as the state religion, the wars of independence were a blow for the church, because the new republics did not accept the interference of the Spanish and Portuguese empires through patronage. For instance, bishops were formerly appointed directly by the crown in Europe. Also, if a Latin American dictator disagreed with the church in Rome, he severed relations and established a national church.

Over time, all governments moved gradually toward secularization under the influence of humanism and reason. Catholic evangelization focused more on the number of baptized than moral and religious teaching. The vast and promising land attracted many immigrants in the 19th century, mainly European Protestants. This forced some countries to guarantee religious freedom, first for immigrants and then for everyone.

Today more than 20 Latin American republics in theory guarantee religious freedom in their constitutions, including Cuba. In most, the church and state have been separated.

Some countries, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Venezuela, maintain the Catholic Church as the state religion. The Argentine constitution still provides that only Catholics can become president. For instance, President Menem is a Muslim but had to be baptized by the Catholic Church before he could become president.

Although the constitutions of some countries proclaim equality of religious rights, the practice is very different. I am sure that you have often heard that we are all equal, but some are more equal than others. Given that most Latin American countries are Catholic, it has been relatively easy for the Catholic Church to control the republics directly or indirectly, through the appointment and recommendation of loyal Catholics to fill senior government positions. These agents take care of the interests of the Vatican, a foreign power, more than the interests of their country. This in itself is unconstitutional.

Catholic penetration of politics has enabled it to use the government as a mechanism to reject non-Catholic missionaries, denying them visas and manipulating information concerning religious affiliation. Catholics also judge the doctrinal beliefs of new religious groups before they can be registered by the government and censor coverage of Catholic scandals in the mass media. They feed domestic newspapers with articles against the gospels and evangelicals and use the derogatory term of sect, which has the connotation of a group that supposedly destroys family unity and national identity. This influences parliament to approve laws that favor the Catholic Church and guarantee extraordinary privileges.

This is the root of the problem of the attitude of many Catholic archbishops. They insist upon preserving special privileges, ignoring religious minorities while proclaiming religious freedom.

Let me give you some contemporary examples from Venezuela. Last year, in a letter to the president of the Chamber of Deputies of Congress, the secretary general of the Episcopal Conference of Venezuela, Monsignor Sanchez Pores, stated, “we support the actions of Mr. Louis Alverez, Director of Justice and Religion, because not only is he working for the church, but also for the fatherland.’’ Alvarez became very popular after restraining the registration of over 4,000 evangelical churches, battering an evangelical deputy, and canceling the registration of the Unification Church.

Recently, the Venezuelan Embassy in Santo Domingo denied visas to 71 evangelical missionaries who intended to assist earthquake victims and perform a ministry for Venezuelan prisoners. In 1997 the media published more than 250 articles over a two-month period that attacked the Unification Church. Some of the articles published included a statement from the police commissioner that he had found “no crimes... The principles [of the Unification Church] are noble in character.” This was not sufficient to stop some 12 bishops, who publicly gave false testimony concerning the church.

The Catholic Church enacted a special agreement with the government in 1964 that confers upon it extraordinary privileges while ignoring the rights of other churches. Today, the national official budget for the Venezuelan Catholic Church amounts to $200 million, plus an additional $200 million of regional revenue. This is possible because the Catholic Church is the only legal church. All other churches must be registered as civil associations. And, of course, only the church can legally receive financial aid from the state.

As regards information manipulation, the 1998 World Almanac shows that 96 percent of the Venezuelan population is Catholic. This is not true, according to our records. Some 20-25 percent are evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals. This is a problem resulting from a law that forbids asking about religion when surveys are conducted.

In conclusion, Catholics and Protestants of all denominations have a common goal and pursue the same purpose. Although our doctrines may vary, we are not diametrically opposed in the final goal of living in God’s Kingdom. This desire is unchangeable. We could, together, achieve this objective without attempting to control one another or pressure one another. Both Catholics and Protestants need to develop doctrines of tolerance, so that under our leadership we may mature on this very sensitive issue. Dialogue among different denominations should be focused on common goals and joint efforts for the wellbeing of all, not centered on theological discussions nor on attempting to attain a constellation of doctrines. Eventually we could discuss our theologies, once we have become good friends. Coalitions to defend freedom of religion appeal to the conscience of brothers and sisters whose hearts have not yet opened to the love of humankind.

We must learn to trust one another in order to break the shackles induced by the fear of losing control or being persecuted. These feelings only jeopardize the true expression of religious freedom and confine us within an unavoidable conflict. Latin America is not the last bastion of the Roman Catholic Church. Neither is it a refuge for Protestants, quite the contrary. It is a land of freedom if we are able to build it in a responsible manner so that together we may grow and convert it under the blessing of God shared by all people of the world.

We have heard theories about love and tolerance for 2,000 years. It is now the time to truly put it into practice. May god bless you all and may we all pray to God because we have just heard that a young man has been apprehended in Caracas, Venezuela. They are questioning him to find out why we are meeting here. Those who know how to pray to God should do so. Our task is right here. It is correct for us to fight for religious freedom.