Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

RELIGION-COLOMBIA: Changing World, Changing Faiths

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Apr 10 2007 (IPS) - The Catholic Church is losing members every day in Colombia, despite its deep-rooted religious tradition in this country, while evangelical congregations are filling their churches to overflowing.

“In times of crisis, because of civil war or financial difficulties, people look for something transcendent to give them a sense of security, and religion offers them that,” sociologist Ana Mercedes Pereira told IPS.

Jesuit priest Efraín Aldana concurred. A critic of the Catholic Church as it is at present, he remarked to IPS that Colombians today “are seeking a religion that will help them to solve their problems, one that is not authoritarian but instead is close to the people.”

“This is a matter of concern for many Catholic bishops, who see that Protestant churches are growing, especially in low-income sectors of society,” said Aldana, who works with slumdwellers in the city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast.

“However, the Catholic Church is out of step with these times in human history, which is one reason for the exodus of the faithful to other Christian congregations” of all types and backgrounds, he said.

In Aldana’s opinion, “issues such as celibacy, and ostentation, rigidity, and distance from the common people (on the part of the clergy) are off-putting, while more participative practices like music, singing and positive affirmations bring communities closer together.”

Because of this and several other political and social factors, although 90 percent of the Colombian population traditionally declared themselves Catholics, they are now beginning to turn in ever greater numbers to evangelical congregations.

In 1930 there were only about 9,000 Protestants in Colombia, and by 1950 there were approximately 70,000.

In the 1950s a process of modernisation took place in the country, described by economist Consuelo Corredor as “fragmented and exclusive” but which did bring about social changes. Access to education increased, as did women’s access to work outside the home. Birth control was introduced, and the number of media outlets mushroomed.

“Colombian society became secularised,” Pereira said. “World events also had an influence on the national scene, for instance the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, and the subsequent emergence of liberation theology in Latin America, which prompted the creation of Christian base communities (within the Catholic Church).”

Liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor caught the imagination of many priests and lay Catholics, who envisioned that putting it into practice would bring about social change, community development and a better quality of life for the dispossessed.

One of the movement’s most iconic figures in Colombia was Camilo Torres Restrepo, a Catholic priest who joined the leftwing guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) and died in combat a few months later, in February 1966.

During the same period organisations were created, like the Centre for Investigation and Popular Education (CINEP), the Colombian Communications Centre, and lay and religious communities, which promoted social organisation and research.

Another milestone for the social doctrine of the Catholic Church was the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), held in the northwestern Colombian city of Medellín in 1968. This conclave of Roman Catholic bishops, carried out under the motto “To know God, it is necessary to know man,” a quote from Pope Paul VI, declared itself in favour of justice, peace, the family, and a “poor church.”

The final document ratified “God’s preferential option for the poor,” in the understanding that people should be liberated from all kinds of oppression, including that related to socioeconomic dependence.

Followers of liberation theology, and Christian base communities, spread throughout Latin America. In Colombia, where the Catholic hierarchy was more conservative than elsewhere in the region, “there were not many, but they were very strong,” Pereira said.

“But they did not have the support of the Colombian bishops, who did their best to block the advances proposed by liberation theology,” she said.

As the Catholic Church became even more conservative, the armed internal conflict in Colombia worsened and the state’s response grew more heavy-handed. Many of its victims were progressive Catholics.

During the administration of Julio César Turbay (1978-1982), political repression was stepped up under the Security Statute. Two years later, under the government of Turbay’s successor Belisario Betancur (1982-1986), ultra-rightwing paramilitary groups began operating in the central Magdalena Medio region, picking off suspected leftwing activists.

At the same time, free market economics spread throughout the country and the region in the 1980s, followed by globalisation and additional economic effects that accentuated social exclusion.

Then in 1991 the new Constitution opened up freedom of religion in the country.

In 1994, Protestant churches had two million members. Their growth in numbers was fuelled by the internal armed conflict, which stimulated drug trafficking and paramilitary activity in the 1980s, and by the economic crisis of the mid-1990s.

“The crisis hit the middle class particularly hard. Unemployment was high, bank interest rates rose, and so did monthly mortgage payments, so thousands of savers lost their chance of buying their own home,” said Pereira.

So people took refuge in churches, and were attracted especially by those preaching “prosperity theology”, which holds that wealth accrues to individuals who demonstrate faith in God by generous giving.

“They say ‘Whoever gives will receive many times over.’ That’s why they stress that their members should tithe (donate 10 percent of what they have) to the church and its ministers,” Pereira said.

In 2006 there were over five million Protestants in Colombia, which has a population of 43 million. Catholics were down to 82 percent of the population.

Protestant faiths in Colombia include Presbyterian, Baptist and Mennonite churches, as well as Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals, “usually led by middle-class pastors with links to the United States, who have broken with their mother church for a variety of reasons,” Pereira said.

Among current Neo-Pentecostal churches is the International Charismatic Mission, with about 90,000 members in Bogotá. It experienced rapid growth in 2000 as a result of directing its messages especially to young people, and a small-group expansion plan based on “the principle of 12,” in reference to Jesus’ 12 disciples.

The Charismatic Mission is led by Pastor César Castellanos and his wife Claudia Rodríguez, whose political career included a seat in the senate and representing Colombia as ambassador to Brazil from 2004 to 2006.

Another church of this kind is the House on the Rock, led by journalist Darío Silva, a controversial writer when he worked in the media, who says that the Holy Spirit saved him from committing suicide while in a state of despair many years ago.

The Christian Civic Commitment to the Community (C4) arose from the Student and Professional Crusade for Christ, and is led by Jimmy Chamarro, a national senator until last year, and his family.

The growth of these churches, whose congregations are notable for their obedience, has not been met with indifference by Catholic politicians. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe accepted an invitation from the International Charismatic Mission to speak to 16,000 people at the covered Coliseum in Bogotá during his electoral campaign.

Uribe advocated chastity and expressed his opposition to abortion during his speech, and the crowds applauded and repeated the Biblical phrase, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

“The German sociologist Manheim explains crowd phenomena like this one when he says that generally, in times of crisis, religion is strongly expressed in the public arena. In times of social stability, on the other hand, it is relegated to the private sphere,” Pereira said.

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