"The evangelical church is steadily becoming a visible presence in Mexican society."
Juan M. Isais
For nearly 400 years, the evangelical faith and the study of the Bible were prohibited here. As early as the midsixteenth century, Lutherans who had come with the Spanish conquerors suffered persecution, and the Holy Inquisition was in force in Mexico longer than in many other countries. Eventually, under President Benito Juarez (1806-72), a growing reaction to the Catholic church's power led the government to enact anticlerical legislation, which remained in force until this decade and declared the following restrictions: (1) No church could legally own property; (2) foreigners could not serve as priests or pastors; (3) worship services should be held exclusively in temples or churches, not in public buildings; (4) clergy could not directly or indirectly criticize government authorities; (5) clergy could not vote or participate in politics; (6) mass media should not be used to promote religion; and (7) government leaders supposedly should never participate in religious ceremonies.
But in the early 1990s, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari succeeded in reforming the Constitution. As a result, any religious association may now bring in foreign missionaries or pastors provided they are officially affiliated with the church they serve, have their financial support guaranteed for the duration of their service, and fulfill the requirements of the laws of immigration (which are liberally applied). Compare this to the time when foreign missionaries ministered for decades by returning as "tourists."
Also, churches now can hold evangelistic campaigns or healing services in public places. Recently, for example, an evangelical group conducted a Communion service at the Monument to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 in Mexico City. Several large rallies with foreign evangelists have been held in the Plaza of the Constitution. And it is no longer uncommon to see open-air meetings where thousands of people pray, sing, and even take offerings in public.
However, Catholic persecution and hostility against evangelicals persists in many parts of the country. In Chiapas, more than 30,000 evangelical Indians have been expelled from their homes, property, and schools and now live as refugees. In 1990, I was part of a group of 160 evangelicals in Mexico City who had climbed a mountain south of the city to hold an all-night prayer meeting. Thousands of Catholics were incited by a local priest, Ernesto Perez, to chase us on foot for more than five kilometers. We were hit with stones, clubs, metal bars, and even guns. As the women tried to flee through cornfields, they were threatened with rape. One young medical doctor was struck on her legs by machete 13 times. Hundreds of police arrived in time to save us. One police officer told us, "Pray to your God, because these people obey no laws. If God does not hear you, none of us will get out of this alive." Later, 20 of those police officers were converted to Christ.
Still, the Catholic church is showing a spirit of better cooperation with the government and even with evangelical leaders. There is a clearer separation of church and state. And even though not always enforced, these laws are now on the books.
One hidden blessing that came with the many decades of religious restrictions was that the Mexican evangelical church developed its own strong and healthy national leadership. Our leaders are conservative in theology and practice but express a strong social consciousness. While precise data are not available, reasonable estimates are that in 1970 all non-Catholics numbered fewer than 1 million, in 1980 more than 2 million, in 1990 perhaps 7 million. Some sources say that non-Catholics today represent 17 percent of the population. The State Department lists nearly 6,000 religious associations, 75 percent of them Protestant, and of those more than 60 percent are Pentecostals, who formerly represented the poorer segments of society but today include many professionals and middle or upper classes. Charismatic evangelicals have the largest buildings while their ministers tend to be younger. Their worship services and systems of leadership are similar to the Willow Creek Community Church model in the Chicago area. Some are following the model of the Toronto Blessing.
The evangelical church is steadily becoming a visible presence in Mexican society. An interdenominational Christian choir called Amen has sung in important concert halls, often accompanied by symphony orchestras. Most news media have evangelicals on staff. There are three Protestant universities in the country. An interdenominational group is in the process of starting the first evangelical university in Mexico City. Christian camps show a strong presence. And after long years when Christian radio was forbidden, the airwaves today broadcast numerous gospel programs—though Christian stations as such are not yet allowed.
At the political level, almost all the parties have evangelicals among their leaders. In Mexico City, Maria de los Angeles Moreno, of Baptist background, has been a senator, president of the Congress, member of the presidential cabinet, and national president of her political party. Pablo Salazar Mendicuchea, a member of the Church of the Nazarene, was secretary of state in Chiapas and is now a senator and member of the Commission of Good Will and Pacification, the group attempting to mediate an end to the religious conflict in that important state. Another evangelical Christian is Pablo Monzalvo, a former director of some 20,000 auxiliary police, who teaches in the national university and leads a charismatic congregation. For better or worse, most political parties now seek a better relationship with evangelicals through contacts with their leaders and through organizations such as the Mexican Evangelical Fellowship (CONEMEX), which played an important part in the reformation of the Constitution.
While everything is not rose colored here, Mexico is changing for the better. I am encouraged. We have more liberty for evangelism and the practice of our faith than ever before.
Juan M. Isais, 72, is directory of Latin American Mission of Mexico and publisher of Prisma, an evangelical Mexican magazine. He has served as a missionary in Mexico, Central America, and New York City and was president of the Mexican Evangelical Fellowship. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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