Marcelo Nieva.World Watch Monitor
Argentinian pastor Marcelo Nieva continues to face intimidation and threats, despite the 24/7 presence of the National Gendarmerie outside his church building.
Eighteen months since he and his colleague, Daniel Carreño, were shot at as they were driving through the city of Córdoba, Nieva was targeted again.
This time, on 24 April, Nieva was driving to his church with his wife, who is pregnant with their second child, when he noticed that he was being followed.
“The car was tailing us very closely, trying to shock us and make us stop. The situation was very aggressive, so I sped up. For nearly 30 blocks it was like being in a chase scene in a movie.”
Córdoba Province, Argentina.World Watch Monitor / Datawrapper
Only this was real.
“At one point, the driver of the other car stopped at a corner and tried to take something from his glove compartment. I was worried we might be shot at again, so, to protect my family, I drove at full speed to the door of the church, where the National Gendarmerie are standing guard 24 hours a day. They intercepted this guy quickly, neutralised the situation and he was arrested. Thank God that this time we didn’t suffer any injuries and our lives were protected.”
Nieva reported the incident to local police, who arrested the man, but Nieva said this is the “first time” the police in Río Tercero have acted in the church’s favour and “only because the National Gendarmerie were there, so they had an obligation”.
The following day, the women’s shelter, which the church runs to house vulnerable women, including ex-drug addicts and prostitutes, was attacked. Stones were thrown at the building. Nieva says the women “dared not go outside”.
Both incidents have been reported to the federal police office, which is currently assessing two court cases involving Nieva and his Pueblo Grande Baptist Church, although both have stalled in recent months. The first relates to the attempt on his life in October 2014. The second is an appeal for justice relating to his claims that his church has suffered four years of religious persecution at the hands of the local authorities.
After months without progress, the church is still awaiting a date for the next court hearing. Nieva’s assistant, Carolina Villarroel, told World Watch Monitor the church’s lawyer is preparing to lodge an official complaint against the federal judge for alleged obstruction of justice.
Graffiti on the Pueblo Grande Baptist Church calls it a “sect”.Pueblo Grande
Nieva told World Watch Monitor in 2014 that his church had been denounced by politicians, the police and local newspapers as a “controversial sect” following the introduction in Córdoba state of Argentina’s Law 9891, which claims to exist to “achieve early detection and prevention of any situation of psychological manipulation, and to provide assistance to victims of manipulation”. However, Nieva said the law has been abused and applied to legitimate religious organisations, such as his church, which is recognised by Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship.
As a result of the denunciations against Nieva and his church, he said “hatred” grew against his church in the local community and that police regularly attacked the church, smashing windows and ransacking church property.
Nieva added that the law, which currently only applies to the Córdoba region, could have a significant negative impact on the rest of the country if it is applied elsewhere.
“The law is a threat to all Christian freedom in Argentina,” he told World Watch Monitor. “At first it is affecting only our church, so people don’t understand the danger of it. But we know how dangerous it is because we are living through it.”
In May last year, an appeals court hearing in the city of Villa María, 100 miles south of Córdoba, ruled in favour of Nieva and the Pueblo Grande Church, dictating that his case must be heard in a federal court.
“A federal judge wanted to remove our case from the federal courts,” Villarroel said. “This would have been a major setback.”
Our case represents a big problem for the province because it was the police who raided our church, repeatedly assaulted the members of our congregation and failed to perform their duty as officials.
Had the appeals court ruled against the church, Villarroel said, Nieva and Carreño would have lost the federal guards assigned to them after the October 2015 assassination attempt. Instead, the court mandated that the church would receive the indefinite 24/7 protection of guards from the more senior National Gendarmerie.
“Our case represents a big problem for the province because it was the police who raided our church, repeatedly assaulted the members of our congregation and failed to perform their duty as officials,” Villarroel said.
The appeals court also referred the case to Argentina’s National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism.
‘Attack on freedom of worship’
The fact the government employed the National Gendarmerie to protect the church “shows the seriousness of the case and is a breakthrough for the whole evangelical church in Argentina,” said Villarroel. “This unprecedented case has the potential to benefit all evangelicals in Argentina, after the Federal Court of Appeals recognised the systematic persecution and discrimination against members of our church and urged the relevant judicial authorities to act as quickly as possible.
“The fact that we are still under the protection of the Gendarmerie shows how complicated and deep the case is and demonstrates the scale of the fierce battle that has been waged for several years. We want every citizen of Argentina to be able to freely practice their religion, as it says in the Constitution.”
However, Villarroel said church members are still scared.
“The Gendarmerie only protects the church building and parishioners when they visit. But church members still live in fear of attacks, which are happening constantly, whether by civilians or police, as well as the constant harassment of local justice,” she said. “We are concerned at this lack of appropriate judicial protection because custody of the church alone is not enough to cease acts of discrimination, harassment, persecution and religious hatred.”
According to the church’s lawyer, Zeverin Escribano, “the persecution of Pueblo Grande is due to [the church’s efforts to fight] drug trafficking, people trafficking, judicial collusion, the intervention of some local media and relatives of women who were taken care of by the church, and some who have relationship with the police”.
He said that he has never known such an “attack on freedom of worship” in his 37 years in work, and called it “a major setback in Argentina, a country that boasts of being ‘tolerant'”.