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 ...1