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Jamaica guards its reputation as a tourist paradise—literally. Earlier this year, the government dispatched its military to make sure nothing bad happened at or near tourist destinations such as Negril and Montego Bay.

Meanwhile, throughout the spring and summer, the cities most Jamaicans live in were war zones, claiming the lives of residents, soldiers, and gang members. More than 500 people were killed between January and July on this island nation of 2.6 million. Prime Minister P. J. Patterson instituted a curfew in the capital city of Kingston and its suburbs and sent troops into the city with wide-ranging powers, saying they will be "a permanent fixture."

Violence has flared up every few weeks in Jamaica for various reasons. In April, nine people were killed in island-wide riots after the government attempted to institute a 45-cent increase in the gas tax. In June and July, a spate of gang warfare forced hundreds of Jamaicans to flee their homes. Also in July, the unprovoked killing of a former police officer by other officers inspired riots. (Jamaican police have killed 240 civilians since January 1998.)

"These riots were really just an outgrowth of other difficulties," says Rennard White, director of the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals. "People are demanding to be heard and will show their discontent in extreme measures."

VISIBLE, BUT DIVIDED, CHURCH: As social problems and violence reach a boiling point in Jamaica, many have turned to the church for assistance and guidance.

"Jamaica is a very religious country in many ways," says White. "And the church is one of its strongest voices."

It is also Jamaica's most visible institution. There are more churches per square kilometer on this island nation than anywhere ...

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In the Magazine

October 4, 1999

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