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FGV-SP 2011

A line of Bibles leading out of the door of the Friends of Israel Biblical Baptist Tabernacle means the afternoon service is about to start. The church has been extended three times in ten years to seat over 10,000 people, but it is still so busy that the faithful use Bibles to hold their spots in the queue. Weekly attendance is now 80,000, which its officials say is
the most in El Salvador.

The evangelical Protestantism preached within its walls (and on screens outside) has taken off in Central America. Estimates vary, but according to the State Department of the United States, barely 50% of Salvadorans now identify as Catholic, and in Honduras and Belize the share has dropped below half. Nicaragua is close behind. In Mexico, by comparison, 90% have kept the Catholic faith.


Some Central Americans switched during the civil wars of the 1980s, when Catholic priests began criticising their governments. To the authorities, “if you were a Catholic you were suspicious,” says Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the assistant bishop of San Salvador. After Archbishop Óscar Romero was murdered in 1980, many turned to Protestant churches.


More recently, the Catholic church’s conservatism has shrunk its flock. Edgar López Bertrand, the founder of the Friends of Israel, says he could not become a Catholic priest because his parents were divorced. Now, the crowd outside his church includes teenage couples and not a few miniskirts. (Should relationship problems arise, the church offers a book called “Help! I’m married”.) The gospel of prosperity, recklessly preached by some evangelical outfits, goes down well in poor countries: Costa Rica and Panama, twice as rich as their neighbours, remain strongly Catholic.


Proximity to America has spurred the churches’ growth. “Everything we know comes from the United States,” says Edgar López Bertrand Jr, who runs Friends of Israel with his father. Media skill is one useful import: his church broadcasts on television and radio, and sells DVDS alongside religious books.


The United States provides missionaries too. Across the region, groups in matching T-shirts build schools and lavatories in the name of God. Honduras alone receives 50,000 a year. “God just pounded my heart,” says Toni McAndrew, who came to El Salvador in 2004 to teach the gospel to the deaf, and is now recording the Bible in sign language. Missionaries in San Salvador run an orphanage and a foundation for disabled children, and train evangelical pastors.


The evangelicals’ success is forcing the Catholic church to adapt. “We must ask ourselves why our people left, what we are doing wrong,” admits Monsignor Rosa Chávez. Some detect a more lenient line on premarital sex and even abortion. And the Catholic church in El Salvador now has its own television channel, which over Christmas featured young presenters wearing Santa hats.


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