The hills above Cusco, Peru, in a 2009 photo.
The hills above Cusco, Peru, in a 2009 photo. (Matthew Barker, Peru for Less / Flickr / Creative Commons)

About one-quarter of the world’s Christians live in Latin America and, apart from in Colombia, most have enjoyed wide freedom to live out their faith. Christian life in Latin America is getting a bit more difficult, however, according to Open Doors International, creator of the World Watch List.

The annual list ranks the 50 countries where life as a Christian is currently most difficult. After a three-year absence, Mexico is on the list again, joining Colombia. Three more countries – Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia – are among a handful of “persecution watch” countries just outside the top 50.

Learn more: All about the World Watch List

Dennis Pastoor, Latin America analyst for the World Watch List team, tackles six questions about the church under pressure in Latin America.

The highlands of western Guatemala, shown here in 2007, are home to the indigenous Ixil people.
The highlands of western Guatemala, shown here in 2007, are home to the indigenous Ixil people. (Renata Avila / Flickr / Creative Commons)

1. What does this pressure look like?

In a word: complex, due to the social exclusion experienced by most people, combined with generally weak security. Christians, seen by criminal organisations as a threat, are especially affected by violence.

There are two main ‘engines’ of persecution:

Organised corruption: underperforming governments, lack of rule of law, endemic corruption and criminal organisations operating with impunity. Colombia, Mexico and Central America.

Tribal antagonism: Traditional religions, a mix of indigenous paganism and popular Catholicism, are reviving, especially in isolated areas. Indigenous converts to Christianity face all sorts of harassment, exclusion from basic social services, torture and even expulsion. Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Bolivia.

Three other, less powerful, ‘engines’ are at work:

Communist oppression: still very present, in different forms. Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Secular intolerance, aided by the erosion of understanding about the role religion, personal and organised, plays in public life. This is a growing issue. All of Latin America

Ecclesiastical arrogance: The legal status of Protestant churches still remains an issue in some countries in the region, though the trend is abating.

Learn more: What are the ‘Engines of persecution’?

An abandoned church, Cuba, in 2007.
An abandoned church, Cuba, in 2007. (Patrick Tanguay / Flickr / Creative Commons)

2. Where is it happening?

Most Latin American countries experience a certain degree of persecution. Five stand out:

Colombia is No. 34 on the 2015 World Watch List. The main persecution dynamic is organised corruption, but tribal antagonism, ecclesiastical arrogance and secular intolerance are also present.

Mexico rejoined the list in 2015, at No. 38. The same persecution dynamics as in Colombia are present. The most visible of them is tribal antagonism.

Cuba‘s situation has become more subtle after the severe persecution of decades ago. There is a form of Communist oppression that manifests itself mostly as government restrictions.

Venezuela has a revolutionary government striving for maximum influence on the people. Tensions between President Nicolás Maduro and Catholic and evangelical leadership have been growing.

Bolivia has legalised its coca plantations, opening the door to criminal influence, since President Evo Morales came to power in 2007. There have been reports of government restrictions for Pentecostal and evangelical churches.

A murder suspect is held by police in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in July 2012.

3. What are the trends?

Organised crime is growing, moving north from Colombia’s crackdown to Mexico and Central America. “My husband was a pastor and was actively involved in speaking up for human rights. He became a threat for local gangs and was killed,” said a widow who fled El Salvador, one of three extremely violent countries, along with Guatemala and Honduras, on Mexico’s southern border.

The indigenous revival is bringing pre-Columbian cultures back to life, but the downside is the imposition of pagan rites upon communities, a return to witchcraft, and a rise in tribal antagonism.  Indigenous community leaders cut off Christian converts from basic social services, and have installed anti-democratic local government systems.

Secular intolerance will spread throughout the region. On the other hand, ecclesiastical arrogance will diminish as the Church matures and moves toward greater unity.

Under the radar, Communist oppression can be detected, in the form of limits on speech and Christian social initiatives, in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, each under the Cuban sphere of influence. Unknown for now is whether any of that will change due to Cuba and the United States taking the first steps toward normalised relations.

Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death”, is tattooed on a Mexican member of the religious cult, in Mexico City, in a 2011 photo.

4. What’s unique about persecution in Latin America?

Occultism. It can be seen from three angles:

The growing presence of Satanism as a religion

Witchcraft as an integral part of the indigenous traditional belief system

The influence of indigenous beliefs on Catholic rites and practice

The Santa Muerte movement, begun in Mexico about 30 years ago, has turned violent in recent years. Members claim to kill and kidnap not only for money, but to ‘serve Satan’. Pastoor reports:

“A pastor was abducted by a criminal gang who was a member of a Satanic cult. His family was ordered to pay ransom. His wife and family succeeded in collecting it and the criminals came to take the money. The pastor’s wife asked them: ‘But where is my husband?’ ‘He is at the beginning of your street,’ they told her. When she went there, her husband was there. Only he was not alive. She found him in a plastic garbage bag, killed and dismembered.”

Crime bosses have taken up the occult, casting spells and curses over their enemies and invoking spirits to defend their causes. There are stories of spells being cast to protect drug transports and the property of drug traffickers. From this perspective, crime lords consider praying Christians to be a threat.

Wearing shirts proclaiming "I am Colombia," "No more kidnappings" and other slogans, Colombians maked their Independence Day in July 2008 with a rally demanding that the FARC release all of its kidnap victims.
Wearing shirts proclaiming “I am Colombia,” “No more kidnappings” and other slogans, Colombians maked their Independence Day in July 2008 with a rally demanding that the FARC release all of its kidnap victims. (nmarritz / Flickr / Creative Commons)

5. Why don’t we hear much about persecution in Latin America?

Four reasons:

1. Communist guerrillas no longer are the prime source of pressure on the church. The Peruvian Shining Path was defeated. Colombian Communist guerrillas, such as the FARC and the ELN, have been weakened; both have lost their ideological drive, and have shifted their focus to drug trafficking.

2. Persecution dynamics in Latin America are so intertwined with the overall presence of lawlessness, violence and poverty that it can be difficult to distinguish between simple crime and behaviour that is driven by anti-Christian motives.

3. With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, persecution typically does not come from the “vertical” pressures of the state. Instead, it comes from the “horizontal” pressures of criminal organisations, revolutionary insurgencies, tribal authorities or social actors of different types.

4. Although they form the overwhelming majority of the population and many can function freely, Christians and churches that are actively involved in society, or speak out, are targeted by criminal organisations and tribal leaders.

The Christ the Redeemer statue looms over Rio de Janeiro.
The Christ the Redeemer statue looms over Rio de Janeiro. ( / Flickr / Creative Commons)

6. Why does the Latin American Church matter?

Size. Latin America spans South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Numbers. South America is the only continent with an openly professing Christian majority. Latin America is home to a quarter of the world’s Christians.

Vitality. It combines strong, historically established churches with the dynamism of the so-called New Religious movements. Against the backdrop of secularisation and de-Christianisation trends in Europe and in the West in general, the Latin American Church has effectively become one of the centres of gravity of the global Church.

Strategic potential. Apart from the huge global impact of ‘liberation theology’ generally, it is Latin American evangelical theologians such as Ecuadorian  René Padilla and Peruvian Samuel Escobar who gave the global evangelical Lausanne Movement the concept of “integral mission” – that the Gospel must change the social structures of society before it can be said to have come to the culture.  As world Christianity becomes a southern hemisphere phenomenon, the Latin American Church must be acknowledged all the more for its insights.