Overview of persecution of Christians in Latin America

Overview of persecution of Christians in Latin America
By Dr. Dennis P. Petri, International Director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom

Dear friends of the European Evangelical Alliance,


In this article, I would like to introduce you to Latin America, a region that is not often considered in reports about persecution of Christians. Because it’s a majority Christian continent and most countries are democracies that have incorporated international provisions for religious freedom in domestic legislation, many assume there are no problems related to religious freedom. However, when you zoom into actively practicing Christians, you find they can be very vulnerable to threats in three areas: the regulation of religion by organized crime, the hostilities against converts to Christianity in indigenous communities and the restrictions on religious expression in communist and post-communist countries. Please pray for actively practicing Christians in Latin America, that they may find the strength and wisdom to continue living out their faith. Please also pray for more visibility for their plight in international reporting, so both churches and governments from all over the world may take note of their situation and develop initiatives to support them.



  • Legal protection of religious freedom in Latin America


Since Latin America’s democratization in the 1980’s, the legal protection of religious freedom is guaranteed by international treaties and national constitutions. Most Latin American countries are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the American Convention on Human Rights, which protect freedom of religion.


As far as the legal framework is concerned, it can therefore be concluded that there are no major obstacles to religious freedom in the vast majority of Latin American countries, with the exception of Cuba. Data from the Religion and State project confirms that apart from some forms of preferential treatment given to Catholics and some registration requirements and limits on proselytizing, Latin American states have among the lowest levels of government involvement in religion. From the perspective of human security, the enforcement of religious freedom, however, does pose challenges for some minority groups as will be explained in the next section.



  • The vulnerability of actively practicing Christians


An important distinction must be made between nominal Christians and actively practicing Christians. The majority of Latin America’s population is nominally Christian, however, in most Latin American countries, less than 50% of all Christians regularly attend church. On other indicators, actively practicing Christians are also a minority. It is precisely this group of actively practicing Christians that possesses a specific vulnerability to suffer human rights abuses, i.e. there are demonstrable threats to forms of religious behavior.



  • Organized crime


Religious freedom in Latin America is restricted by three dynamics. The first is organized crime. The main feature of organized crime is the creation of a climate of impunity, anarchy and corruption, in which actively practicing Christians are vulnerable because their behavior – based on the biblical worldview – is contrary to the greed of organized crime.


The targeting of Christians by criminal organizations is generally motivated by a combination of two elements. Firstly, people involved in organized crime view Christians who openly oppose their activities as a threat, especially when Christians get involved in social programs or in politics. Secondly, criminal organizations know that the Christian faith is not compatible with their ideals. They fear Christians will influence members of the community or even members of their own organizations to oppose their activities.


In many states of Mexico, violence is pervasive but affects actively practicing Christians to a high degree. Churches and other Christian institutions are often seen as revenue centers by drug cartels. The extortion of priests, pastors and Christian business-owners is commonplace. Attending church services increases the threat of kidnapping, and youths are particularly at risk of being recruited into gangs. Social initiatives are also faced with major threats, especially initiatives that enter the area of influence of criminal organizations. Drug rehabilitation programs or youth work are a direct threat to the market and influence of drug cartels, and therefore increase the vulnerability of Christians engaging in these programs.


From personal research on the ground I can confirm that that there is widespread and sophisticated surveillance and monitoring by members of drug cartels within churches. During a trip to Tamaulipas, Mexico, in 2014, I met Daniel Pérez,[1] a young pastor who had taken the initiative of creating a football team for youngsters to keep them away from the drug cartels. One of the youngsters who signed up for his football team resigned his job as halcón [hawk], which is how informants and errand boys are called, for the drug cartel Los Zetas [The Z’s] and was killed. Daniel himself started to receive death threats.


Now referring to Colombia, in many parts of the country, similarly to Mexico, organized crime is responsible for demonstrable threats to certain forms of religious behavior. This continues to be a problem, even though a Peace Agreement was signed with the FARC guerrillas in 2016.


  • Hostilities against conversion to Christianity in indigenous areas


The second dynamic that restricts religious freedom is the presence of hostilities against conversion to Christianity in indigenous areas, especially in Mexico and Colombia. Converts to Christianity are regularly threatened, excluded from access to basic social services, beaten and displaced by tribal leaders. They are not given sufficient protection by their governments.


The first time I heard about a serious religious conflict in Latin America was in 2010 during a trip to Bogotá, Colombia, when I met Ana Silvia Secué, an indigenous school teacher belonging to the Nasa ethnic group. She shared about the violence she suffered within her indigenous community after she decided to establish a confessional school and started a lobby organization to advocate for the religious rights of Colombia’s indigenous Christians.


  • Communism


The third dynamic that restricts religious freedom is communism. In Cuba, pressure on Christians continues in the form of harassment, strict surveillance and discrimination, including the occasional imprisonment of leaders. Religious practice is monitored and all church services are infiltrated by spies. In Venezuela, the pressure on Christians is subtle, but any organization which is influential is restricted by the government. For years, the Venezuelan government has attempted to shut down private faith-based education. In Bolivia, through administrative and bureaucratic obstacles, Christians are also restricted in their freedom to exercise their right to worship as well as freedom of expression.


In Cuba, I established contact with Mario Félix Lleonart Barroso, a pastor and blogger, who did not shy away from making public declarations about social injustices and the oppressive policies of the communist regime (Lleonart Barroso 2017). Other pastors considered him as “imprudent”, but he believed in his “prophetic mission.” He was imprisoned several times, frequently confined to house arrest and finally forced into exile.


[1] Name changed for security reasons.

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