A dozen years ago, less than 1 percent of the Olmos maximum security prison population 40 miles southeast of Buenos Aires professed to be evangelical Christians. Today, however, Olmos has one of the largest prison churches in the world: 1,450 out of 3,000 inmates have become members of Christ the Only Hope Church.

"What's happened in Olmos cannot be humanly explained," says Assembly of God pastor Juan Zuccarelli, who is also director of non-Catholic religions at Olmos. "Our goal is to see this prison 100 percent converted for Christ."

The growth is partly due to the physical layout of the facility, which has no individual cells. As many as 70 prisoners are crammed into communal cellblocks.

Zuccarelli organized an evangelical crusade inside the prison in 1985. "This was the first time something like that happened in Argentina," he says. Around 300 prisoners attended, and 100 accepted Christ as Savior. Initially, believing inmates lived throughout the general prison population. But in 1987, prison authorities authorized the first "evangelical cellblock," beginning a period of spectacular growth. Now the entire fourth and fifth floors are occupied by Christians, and the church is looking to expand.

"The reputation of the Christian cellblocks is a powerful evangelistic tool," Zuccarelli says. "According to the Argentine penal laws, inmates must be separated according to their crimes-thieves with thieves, murderers with murderers." Yet in the Christ the Only Hope cellblocks, inmates are placed randomly, regardless of their offense. "It's a living example of our new nature in Christ," he says. Evangelism is not limited to preaching by example. Inmate pastors have permission to visit and evangelize the other cellblocks, to preach in the courtyard, and even to conduct baptismal services. According to prison administrator Daniel Tejeda, an average of 350 prisoners are baptized every six months.

STRICT STANDARDS: Inmates do not flock to the church in an attempt to ease the regimented prison lifestyle. In fact, the church is maintained by a rigorous discipleship program that has its own code of conduct in which inmate pastors have unquestioned authority.

New members are moved to an "observation cellblock" and are required to sign a consent form. "They must agree to renounce smoking, homosexual acts, violence, drug use, and television viewing," says Tejeda, who is also a leader in the church Zuccarelli pastors. In an environment where church is in session 24 hours a day, backsliding into unacceptable behavior is easily detected.

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"For each infraction the brother must tithe his time, two hours and forty minutes in prayer," Tejada says.

Still, most find the highly organized and structured evangelical cellblocks preferable to the violence and fear that characterizes daily life in the normal cellblocks.

PENTECOSTAL EMPHASIS: Christ the Only Hope Church is thoroughly Pentecostal. Healing and miracles are reportedly commonplace. Issues of church government and doctrinal differences, so common in outside churches, are nonexistent because the majority of believers find Christ in prison. The Olmos fellowship is all they know.

While prayer is sometimes used as a punishment for infractions, most often it is voluntary. Each night, 365 days a year, six inmates in each cellblock pray from midnight to 6 a.m. "Two hours are spent in Bible reading, two in prayer and praise, and two in intercession, bunk by bunk, for their sleeping cellmates," Zuccarelli says.

Each evangelical cellblock has a leader who conducts a daily service and shepherds the 50 to 60 inmates under his care. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, believers from the entire prison congregate in the huge Catholic church on the prison grounds for a united meeting. Although Zuccarelli, Tejeda, and other pastors provide leadership from the outside, the day-to-day ministries are run by inmate pastors.

The church even tithes. "The brothers tithe all the food and clothing brought by visitors," Zuccarelli says, as the provisions are distributed among needy inmates or donated to the community.

The strict discipline in the church is not for everyone. Nearly 500 inmates who have prayed to receive Christ as Savior are unwilling to forsake their lifestyle and move into the evangelical cellblocks.

FEW REPEATS: There is an amazingly low rate of recidivism among Olmos church members. Among the general prison population, 40 percent of released prisoners have been incarcerated again. Less than 1 percent of released evangelical inmates have returned behind bars, according to Zuccarelli. Hugo Villalba, director of penitentiaries for the province of Buenos Aires, says the extremely low rate of recidivism has prompted him to encourage the formation of an evangelical cellblock in each of the 29 prisons in the province.

Cristian Santucho, 22, became a Christian while imprisoned in Olmos for armed robbery and auto theft. While growing up, he was in and out of reform schools and never held a job for more than a couple of weeks. "It was always easier to steal," he says. Since his release three years ago, he has married, bought a home, and he works 10 hours a day in a bakery. Santucho attributes his success on the outside to his life-changing experience inside the prison. "When you really have an encounter with God, you recognize the damage sin does, and you want to change," he says.

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MODEL PRISONERS: "We've seen that the conduct of these prisoners has been radically changed," Villalba says. "More evangelicals mean fewer problems for us."

Olmos warden Juan Carlos Bagnasco wishes all inmates behaved as well as those in the evangelical cellblocks. "I've seen thousands of cases of inmates transformed, including some with terrible behavior converted into model prisoners," he says.

Official recognition translates into special privileges for the inmates. Members of the church are the only ones allowed to staff the prison hospital. "They know that the brothers won't smuggle drugs to the patients and will make sure medicine is distributed properly," Tejeda says.

Tejeda says plans to expand the space devoted to Christians in the prison are opposed, not by penitentiary authorities, but by inmates. "They don't want the church to occupy their territory," he says.

None of the Christian inmates participated in a weeklong riot in April that resulted in several injuries.

When he heard of the uprising, head inmate pastor Ramon Avalos took immediate action. "I instructed the brothers to move the beds in front of the doors to keep the ringleaders out, and we all began to pray," he says.

By Ralph D. Tone in La Plata, Argentina.

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