Religious freedom in Latin America

Organized crime

People who practice their religious faith in Latin America – whether they are Pentecostal preachers or devout Catholic priests such as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now of course famous as Pope Francis – can be restricted by organized crime.

The main feature of organized crime is the creation of a climate of impunity, anarchy and corruption. Those who live their lives based on a Biblical worldview become vulnerable when their behavior runs contrary to the greed of organized crime. Of course, organized crime affects societies as a whole, and not only Christians, but actively practicing Christians possess a specific vulnerability to suffering human rights abuses.

The targeting of Christians by criminal organizations is generally motivated by a combination of two elements. Firstly, people involved in organized crime view all those who openly oppose their activities as a threat, especially when those people get involved in social programs or in politics. Secondly, criminal organizations know that those who live by the precepts of their religious faith do not agree with their aims and objectives. So they fear Christians, for instance, will influence members of the community, or even members of their own criminal organizations, to oppose their criminal activities.

So all denominations of Christianity can become victims of organized crime, though it affects mostly the more outspoken who fulfill leadership positions.

Let me mention a few examples on Mexico.

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 also face major threats, especially those 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.

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.

Communism

Communism also continues to place restrictions on Christians in some countries.

In Cuba, despite President Obama’s visit in March and a continuing warming in relations between the two countries, the Communist government continues to pressure Christians there. This comes in the form of harassment, strict surveillance and discrimination, including the occasional imprisonment of leaders. Indeed Rev Mario Félix Lleonart Barroso was arrested hours before Obama arrived. 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 administration has attempted to shut down private Catholic education in favor of public schools.

In Bolivia, through administrative and bureaucratic obstacles, Protestant Christians are also restricted in their freedom to exercise their right to worship as well as freedom of expression. 

The peace process in Colombia 

To finish, I would like to say a few things about the peace process in Colombia.

Against all expectations, a tiny majority of Colombians voted to reject the peace deal that was agreed between the Colombian government and the FARC, as reported by the BBC on 3 October 2016. 50.2% voted against it in the referendum that was held on 2 October, where the polls had given the ‘yes’ camp a comfortable 67.6% lead one week before. The turnout was extremely low – fewer than 38% – but just high enough for the referendum to be valid.

It would be absolutely incorrect to conclude that the Colombians voted against peace. No reasonable person would be against peace. What the Colombians voted against was a deal that would be very difficult to implement if approved and that turned out to be extremely favorable to the FARC (very generous amnesty provisions, political participation of the FARC, etc.). Perhaps more importantly, the peace deal offered no guarantees that the extremely lucrative drug trafficking would cease. This also probably explains the high rate of abstention: the electorate did not want to vote against peace, but could not agree to the terms of this deal, so many preferred not to vote.

There was an additional issue which worried many conservative Catholics and Protestants: the inclusion of gender ideology in the peace deal – the word “gender” was mentioned 117 times in the final agreement, with quite ambiguous formulations. Many considered this an underhand way of planting the gender agenda into the country’s legal framework. The criticism by conservative Christians may have been a bit overblown, but now that the peace deal has been rejected, Colombia is about to face yet more uncertainty.
On 30 March 2016, the Colombian government also initiated peace talks with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN/National Liberation Army), which is another insurgency group. These peace talks must be welcomed, but there are many challenges.

It must be remembered that Colombia has been at war with itself for decades. It will not be that easy to achieve lasting peace. My main concern is with the scope of the peace talks: they only bind the FARC and now the ELN. Other guerrilla and counter-insurgency groups and criminal gangs present in the country will continue to be active. Moreover, there are concerns that the guerilla members on the ground will not follow the peace agreement negotiated by their leaders and will continue with their very lucrative drug trafficking business. This implies that the pressure both guerrilla groups are placing on all those who practice their Christian faith in rural communities is not likely to cease in the short term.

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Dennis P. Petri
Dennis P. Petri is Director of Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics. A political scientist by training, he specializes in comparative politics with a specific interest in Latin America. He is currently working on a dissertation about religious freedom at VU University Amsterdam.
Dennis P. Petri

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