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May 30, 2009

Evangelicals gain in Catholic Mexico

MEXICO CITY -- At Mexico's oldest church, the Basilica of Guadalupe, the faithful walk on their knees over a concrete path to ask for blessings from the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their spouses take their hands to guide them as their children follow quietly behind. Inside, they sit in the pews, listening with their heads bowed to the solemn words of a priest as the soft light of candles lighted for saints glows behind them.

On the other side of town, parishioners of the Union Evangelical Church stand under a white plastic tent behind a small, unremarkable building. They clap, dance and sing to upbeat gospel music, led by a small man shouting words of affirmation over the harmonies.

For hundreds of years, religion in Mexico has meant the stained-glass windows and kneeling worship of the city's large Roman Catholic cathedrals. Change has come to Mexico, however: Evangelical Protestantism has taken firm hold in the soil of the world's second-largest Catholic country.

In 1950, 98 percent of the population of Mexico was Catholic, compared with 87 percent of the nation's 110 million people today, according to the national census. Some experts also think these numbers don't reflect the true population of evangelical Christians, because in cities such as Mexico City, people are reluctant to say they've deviated from their traditional family values.

In Mexico, the term "evangelicals" includes virtually all non-Catholic Christians. Evangelical Christians are defined by their personal commitment to Christ and their strict following of the Bible above all else. The faith is growing most quickly in rural areas such as Chiapas, Mexico's poor southernmost state, which borders Guatemala.

In Latin American countries such as Guatemala that once were virtually all Catholic, evangelical populations have reached an estimated 25 percent.

"Here in Mexico, Catholicism is the most popular, but many people are torn in trying to find a new religion," said Yolanda Rendon, a historian who's been working at the Basilica of Guadalupe for 15 years. "But the truth is that the Catholic Church is getting worried because evangelical churches are gaining a bigger following."

Part of the growth of the evangelicals is attributed to U.S. influence. American missionaries established many evangelical churches in the region, and many Mexican emigrants bring back American religious influences when they return.

There are other reasons, as well: The new denominations appeal to young people, who are attracted by the variety of youth programs in the evangelical churches. Many young people say they find the Protestant churches more accessible and welcoming.

"One of the main things that really attracts people to the evangelical church is the religious atmosphere is more happy; there's music and more activities done in the community," said Pida Elias, a history and religion professor at the Cuernavaca campus of Tecnologico de Monterrey who's studied the growth of evangelicals. "It attracts many young people and lets the people choose their religion and gives them leeway on how they want to worship."

That there's a competition at all among denominations in Mexico isn't apparent at first glance. There are homemade shrines made of candles on street corners and rosaries around the necks of many of the women, and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to the ice coolers in nightclubs.

Rendon estimates that 60,000 people visit the basilica on an average Sunday, and while the church sees its share of tourists, the majority of visitors are Mexicans.

The overwhelming majority of Mexicans are like Margarita Palmenera, raised in the Catholic Church and still committed to the faith. Visiting the basilica on a recent Sunday with her elderly mother, sister and daughter, Palmenera was looking for help and protection.

"My mother is getting an operation, and we came here to ask for the Virgin to watch over her," she said. "I think the Catholic Church is still very strong, and my faith in God and the Virgin keeps me going. I know that times are changing, but I believe that no matter what, the Catholic Church will always be the strongest church in Mexico." However, more and more visitors are like Eduardo Dominguez, a 23-year-old college student who acknowledges the attraction of evangelical Protestantism even though he's reluctant to sever his ties with the Catholic Church.

"I would never change my religion because of the tradition of my family and my culture," he said, "but as I've gotten older, I've realized there are a lot of things in Catholicism that I don't agree with. For instance, it's very conservative, and instead of focusing on God and worship, a lot of things end up becoming political and about money."

Davis graduated this month from Penn State University.

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