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RELIGION-LATIN AMERICA: Indigenous Peoples Divided by Faith

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 6 2005 (IPS) - Indigenous communities throughout Latin America are facing the loss of their cultural traditions, divisive conflicts, and in some cases even bloodshed, all in the name of God.

Many of the frictions stem from the hundreds of religions and sects that have taken root in these communities, ranging from large, established denominations like the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Adventist, Baptist and Mormon to newer, lesser-known groups like the Church of the Word, the Fountain of Life, Alpha Omega and the Guardians of the Holy Sepulchre.

"Whatever religion they try to inculcate us with, it will have an impact in spiritual terms, which is in a way our Achilles heel, since most of us indigenous peoples approach life from a spiritual level," Luis Macas, a Saragura Indian and president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, remarked to IPS.

Among the 40 million indigenous people who live in Latin America today, the most prevalent religion is still Roman Catholicism, forcibly and often violently imposed by the European "conquerors" in the 15th and 16th centuries through the complete annihilation or partial assimilation of pre-Columbian religious beliefs and practices.

But over the years, other religions have come to compete for the "souls" of the region’s aboriginal peoples, especially during the 20th century, in an often rocky coexistence with the Catholic Church.

In the last 30 years, the Tzotzil Mayan indigenous community of Chamula in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas has been shaken by 100 deaths resulting from religious conflicts.

Another 30,000 community members have been expelled for professing Protestant beliefs and thus incurring the wrath of local authorities, who practice a particularly orthodox brand of Catholicism that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which promoted greater openness to other religions.

Expulsion, imprisonment, physical beatings and the denial of educational and medical services are among the manifestations of the religious sectarianism that has emerged in recent years in large areas of the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, where the majority of the population is indigenous.

In Ecuador, a powerful and organised indigenous movement capable of leading massive social protests, overthrowing presidents and reaching government leadership positions earlier in the decade is now fragmented, and some observers say it is because one sector, allied with Protestant religions, continued to support President Lucio Gutiérrez, who was removed from office by Congress in late April after over a week of street protests.

In Guatemala and Bolivia, which along with Mexico, Ecuador and Peru are the Latin American countries with the largest indigenous populations, divisions have also been wrought by differences of religious affiliation, which often merges with support for particular political parties and local authorities.

"There are clearly internal problems in our communities provoked by religion, because some churches address social concerns, while others merely focus on spiritual matters and foster conformity, which has an obvious impact on the struggles of the indigenous people," noted Rafael González Roc, spokesman for the Committee for Campesino Unity in Guatemala.

"Many religions have destroyed what we are, and it is sad to see the contempt that the new generations have for what we once were. They think that the traditional beliefs of the Mayans (the main indigenous ethnic group in Central America) are witchcraft, or satanic," he commented to IPS.

According to González Yoc, the Church of the Word and Assembly of God, both of which are evangelical Protestant denominations based in the United States, were implanted in indigenous communities in Guatemala to collaborate with the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

Sociologist and journalist Roger Pascual of the Spanish non-governmental group Agencia de Información Solidaria maintains that these two churches were backed by the U.S. government to combat anything that appeared somehow linked to communism in Guatemala.

It was during this same period that the Liberation Theology movement within the Catholic Church had come to exercise a major influence in Central America.

Liberation Theology is based on a "preferential option for the poor", and its proponents’ involvement in the struggles of the poor and marginalised sectors of the population gave them common cause with the leftist revolutionary movements active in the region at the time. As a result, the Catholic Church came to be viewed by some as a dangerously "Marxist" institution.

In his "Analysis of the Incursion of Sects into the Political Spheres of Latin America", Pascual states, "The U.S. government contributed to building up the Assembly of God Pentecostal sect to such an extent that it came to control 1,500 houses of worship, in addition to numerous television and radio stations" in Guatemala.

In addition, he notes, "The (Ronald) Reagan administration (1981-1989) was also behind the establishment of the Church of the Word, which collaborated in the coup d’état led by General José Efraín Ríos Montt en 1982."

Guatemala was engulfed in a civil war from 1960 until 1996. Of the roughly 200,000 people who were killed (including 45,000 "disappeared") by the government security forces, the majority were Mayan Indians. The war also led to the internal displacement of one million people and the exodus of 500,000 refugees to Mexico alone, while 250,000 children were orphaned.

"Religions have an impact on our collective behaviour, and change the essence of the way in which we are organised in communities and families. Because of religion, the traditionally collective nature of indigenous peoples has given way to individualism, and is dividing us," said Macas.

"There are a huge number of sects in Ecuador, I believe over 300, whose role is to pacify, divide and tame the people, subordinating them to the interests of the dominant powers or big corporations, like the oil companies," he added.

When critics talk about "sects", they are referring to more recently founded Protestant denominations and churches, as opposed to established religions like the Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran or Presbyterian churches.

The Roman Catholic hierarchy, together with some anthropologists and civil society organisations, accuse these new sects of recruiting indigenous followers with money and the offer of "salvation", while promoting beliefs that break with their cultural traditions and way of life.

Some Catholic leaders have used highly confrontational language in referring to these upstart Protestant churches. "You have to be shameless to be a Protestant," declared the cardinal of Guadalajara, Mexico, Juan Sandoval Iñiguez, while the former papal nuncio to Mexico, Girolamo Prigione, commented that "these sects are like flies that ought to be swatted with a newspaper."

Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis has criticised this Catholic religious intolerance, claiming that it breeds persecution and denies indigenous people the right to change their beliefs, as if Catholicism were the only religion that should be practised in these communities, an attitude he calls "absurd".

But many critics of these new Protestant denominations, including followers of Liberation Theology – who have a long tradition of demanding respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and fighting against the oppression they suffer – believe that they distort the message of God, and in some cases merely serve to foster ideological control by the United States.

"These sects create individuals who are mindless and alienated. They kill the soul of the people," said Spanish-born Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, a leading exponent of Liberation Theology who devoted almost 40 years of his life to working with the poor in Brazil.

For his part, Pope John Paul II issued a number of documents and declarations condemning these sects during his 1978-2005 papacy, while he promoted dialogue with established Protestant churches, Judaism and Islam.

Sects that use healing, exorcism and promises of prosperity to attract followers are "a danger to Christians" and should be condemned in the same way as drug trafficking and birth control campaigns, the late pope stated during a visit to Brazil in 1991.

One denomination in particular, the U.S.-based Jehovah’s Witnesses, has clashed with authorities in the region because of the fact that its members refuse to pay tribute to national flags and other patriotic symbols. They also cannot give blood or receive transfusions.

Eugenio Poma, a Bolivian Aymara Indian, Methodist bishop and coordinator of the Indigenous Pastoral Committee of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), which represents over 150 established denominations, told IPS that these new religious groups "that are growing like mushrooms" respond to "dark" interests.

"There are churches that only pursue spiritual indoctrination, like many of these sects, and then there are others among us who go into communities to learn and to help. Obviously, we are guided by very different interests, and this separates us," said Poma.

Nevertheless, he added, the "indigenous heart, which strives for a life as part of a community and fights for its rights" will eventually prevail.

"In the end we will struggle together, even though we belong to different faiths. I believe we should come together and listen to each other, because when it comes down to it, all of us indigenous peoples want the same thing," he concluded.

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