Evangelicals are leery of religious education proposal.

While Catholics and evangelical Protestants in the United States may be cooperating as never before on everything from politics to promoting teenage chastity, that is not the case in Catholic-dominated Latin America.

Proposed mandatory religious-instruction classes in Nicaragua and Ecuador—and the passage of such a law in Bolivia—have some evangelicals concerned that the state is promoting Catholicism.

To many Nicaraguan believers, bringing Christian instruction into the country's public schools as an after-hours elective sounds like a balm to help relieve drug abuse, delinquency, and despondency among Nicaragua's youth. Yet some evangelical Christians here oppose the plan now before the legislative assembly and fear it would force-feed evangelical children Catholic doctrine, thus violating the Nicaraguan constitution's principle of education independent of religion.

Minister of Education Humberto Belli stresses the classes are voluntary and says the teaching would not be Catholic but rather promote teachings that all Christians adhere to, such as the Apostles' Creed. Belli, a member of the City of God charismatic Catholic movement and author of Breaking Faith, which details repression of Christians during the Sandinista regime, cites statistics from an Education Ministry parental survey: 83.5 percent want their children to receive religious instruction. Under the new proposal, Belli says, priests would teach Catholic students, and evangelical pastors would teach evangelicals during after-school hours.

The Council of Evangelical Churches Pro-denominational Alliance (CEPAD) opposes Belli's plan. CEPAD founder Gustavo Parajon, who is pastor of Managua's First Baptist Church, points to Article 124 of the Nicaraguan Constitution, which calls for "neutral" public education. Because 80 percent of Nicaragua is Catholic, Parajon believes "it would follow that in the schools the religion that was going to be taught was going to be Roman Catholicism."

Parajon says parishioners in CEPAD churches have complained that devout Catholic President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's Ministry of Education appointees have added catechism to textbooks. Because evangelical churches offer Sunday school and most hold midweek services, after-school religion classes are unnecessary for evangelical children, according to Parajon. Instead, he says, school religion classes would help Catholics "stem the tide" against Nicaragua's growing evangelical church. Nearly 20 percent of the population is evangelical, more than double the figure at the time Sandinistas toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.


According to Parajon, the Nicaraguan proposal is almost identical to the wording of an Ecuadorian initiative that would make Catholic teaching in public schools mandatory. "To us, it is quite obviously something that comes from the Vatican," he said. In addition, a new law in Bolivia requires the teaching of Roman Catholicism in both public and private schools. The LaPaz office of the Rutherford Institute, a U.S.-based organization that defends religious freedom, has filed an appeal with the Bolivian Supreme Court.

Belli denies catechism is being taught in Nicaraguan public schools. "I'm waiting for [CEPAD] to say exactly where the [catechism] classes were taught." The Education Ministry's goal is to conserve moral and cultural values, says Jose Davila, education minister assistant.

Guardedly agreeing with Belli and Davila is a prominent evangelical leader, Saturnino Cerrato, who cites Nicaraguan youth's moral decay as reflected in rising drug use and other social problems. Cerrato, first president of both the National Council of Evangelical Pastors of Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan Evangelical Alliance, says that while he has reservations about the plan, he believes what Belli is proposing is needed.

"Moral values are on the floor, and religious education is an essential element to raise values," says Cerrato, who is also national Assemblies of God vice superintendent. "We know we run a risk with the Catholics. We prefer to run the risk rather than not promote moral values in this country."

Some concerns stem from memories of Nicaragua's pro-Catholic policies earlier this century. Marcos Orozco, former president of the Rosedale Mennonite Convention and pastor of Jesus the New Way Church in Managua, recalls being forced to attend mass in high school. Parajon says his grandfather evicted his father from his home for becoming a Baptist in an era when evangelicals were not admitted to government hospitals run by religious orders. Then, he says, Baptists in Nicaragua formed their own schools because public students were forced to study Catholicism. Jimmy Hassan, Nicaragua's former Campus Crusade for Christ director, remembers when he refused to attend the obligatory weekly religion class in the second grade and was banished to an unshaded patio.

Hassan believes children must be taught Judeo-Christian values. "Education has been a disaster in these last years. We've got to change it," says Hassan, who, as a Campus Crusade staffer in Miami, visits Nicaragua annually. "I believe Christians, not just Catholics or evangelicals, have something positive to share."

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Orozco, however, despite assurances of separate classes for evangelicals and Catholics, still fears that, ultimately, all children will be taught Catholicism because the majority belong to the faith.

Bob Trolese of Managua's Verbo Church trusts the fears are unfounded. "I think he [Belli] would be respectful of evangelicals not to try to get us to say Hail Marys," Trolese says. "We can take biblical principles that would be acceptable in both camps" and bring them to the classroom.

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