by Diego Cevallos
(IPS) MEXICO CITY --
launched an offensive to gain religious ground in Mexico,
home to the world's second largest Roman Catholic population
after Brazil, as the Mexican government is attempting to
quell religious intolerance.
Mass demonstrations, meetings with politicians and demands for media access are part of the evangelicals' new strategy, said Adoniran Gaxiola, a leader of the evangelical Apostolic Church.
More than 80,000 faithful gathered last week for over 10 hours at a stadium in the Mexican capital to rally behind the evangelical mission to attract more followers, said the organizers of the largest evangelical assembly ever in Mexico.
"Some priests from the Catholic Church opposed the rally, showing that they fear our growth, which is rapid and unstoppable," stated Gaxiola.
According to the religious leader, 15 million Mexicans are already members of non-Catholic Christian denominations, many of which are considered sects by the Catholic Church, and their numbers are increasing 10 percent each year.
In several regions of the country, especially in rural areas of southern states -- Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas -- the growing presence of evangelicals has led to confrontations, expulsions from families, arrests, and even Inquisition-like proceedings.
Evangelical National Commission on Human Rights affirms
that religious intolerance between Catholics and
evangelicals is a problem in 19 of the nation's 32 states.
Representatives from both Catholic and evangelical groups have met periodically since 1996 with government authorities to try to find solutions to the conflict, but they have not yet been able to ease the tensions.
Every month there are at least two incidents involving religious intolerance in Mexico, say government authorities.
The problem of intolerance seems to be worst is Chiapas, where nearly half of its indigenous population is considered evangelical. In just the last few years, an estimated 15,000 peasants have abandoned their communities because of religious strife, moving to live in or near the state's larger cities.
Officials from the National Human Rights Commission regularly visit the troubled areas in order to promote religious tolerance, something school teachers are required to encourage.
Gaxiola maintained that religion "is the only thing that can unite society and achieve its moral, social and economic recovery." He added that most incidents of intolerance are instigated by Catholics who believe the evangelical groups are "fanatical sects."
Mexico's Catholic leaders recognize that they are losing members, saying they are working to counter the phenomenon. But they also point out that the evangelical churches have a great deal of money and, at times, a radical message that attracts individuals who are feeling lost.
The Latin American Episcopal Council reports that Catholic congregations in Latin America lost 40 million members between 1970 and 1990.
"Our churches have been accused of being ignorant and fanatical, we are misunderstood, we are trapped in a system that divides, but our diversity can bring unity," declared an announcer over the stadium loudspeakers at last week's evangelical rally.
"This day has been a milestone in the history of the Christian church. God ordered us to make ourselves visible, to take the church out of the temples."
The event organizers said recordings of the gathering will be broadcast in 58 countries in nine languages, permitting more than 450 million people to take part in the event.
Gaxiola has petitioned the Mexican government to eliminate the legal ban on religious groups controlling any form of mass media.
The Catholic Church has requested the same thing, but the government has not shown any movement toward backing the idea.
The Apostolic Church representative said evangelicals began meeting months ago with governing and opposition politicians to lobby for media access -- especially television -- for religious groups, and to exchange points of view on faith-related issues.
October 25, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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