The Ideological Struggle In Nicaragua’s Protestant Churches
“The U.S. should take the ideological initiative ... The struggle is to conquer the consciousness of humanity. The political/ideological element must prevail.: Such are the concepts expressed in the Santa Fe Document of the Reagan administration.
“The United States must seize the ideological initiative... The war is for the minds of mankind. Ideo-politics will prevail...” –Santa Fe Document, 1980.
For many reasons, the churches in Nicaragua provide a very fertile ground for those struggling to win the war for the minds of mankind – and womankind. Differences within the Catholic Church, historical tensions between various Protestant denominations and the so-called “sects”, as well as more recent suspicions and distrust by the government toward some religious sectors have all led to a situation that is easily utilized by those who want to see the Nicaraguan experiment fail.
In recent weeks, accusations have accelerated that Nicaragua is repressing religion. Because religion is a topic which causes people’s deepest sentiments to surface, it often causes an emotional rather than a rational assessment of a given situation. It is precisely that sensitivity, that depth of feeling, which makes the churches easy prey for those who would manipulate religion for the purpose of destabilization.
This article will look at recent history to find the roots of concern over manipulation of religion and will examine the problems of the “sects” and the large non-Catholic role in Nicaragua within the context of Nicaragua’s struggle for survival. We realize that the ideological struggle and the manipulation of religion is a problem not only within the Protestant denominations, but also within the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. However, in this article, we will only treat the problems within the Protestant sector.
LESSONS FROM HISTORYAs in other areas, the Nicaraguan government has looked at history and has become concerned and convinced that religion is a prime target for its enemies.
The Santa Fe Document, cited earlier, which was prepared for U.S. President Reagan by a team of ultra-conservative advisors before he took office, states: “U.S. foreign policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin American by the ‘liberation theology’ clergy. The role of the church in Latin America is vital to the concept of political freedom.” The committee’s assessment of what constitutes political freedom is only found in “private property and productive capitalism”. Any other concepts are “less Christian than Communist”.
According to María Ezcurra in her political analysis of religion in Latin America La Ofensiva Neconservador: Las Iglesias de U.S.A. y la Lucha Ideológica Hacia América Latina, “The Institute on Religion and Democracy constitutes a neo-conservative attempt to create situations which give them greater influence within the religious terrain and in that way the ‘new right’ competes for a voice within the churches both at an ideological level and with a potential for mobilization.”
In April 1981 the Institute was formed for the express purpose of combating the infiltration of communism in the church and combating the evils of liberation theology.
The right-wing Heritage Foundation consistently publishes material presenting the Sandinistas as carrying out repression of religion.
During the 50’s and 60’s many U.S. missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, were willing CIA informants in the belief that they were doing their patriotic duty. In her well documented book, Cry of the People, Penny Lernoux says, “There is conclusive proof that the CIA used religious groups in Latin America for its own secret ends.” CIA money was used through church groups to help overthrow governments in Chile, Brazil and Bolivia.
Knowing this history, the Sandinista government looks with suspicion at incidents which could fit into the type of CIA operations used in other countries. This suspicion, combined with other factors, further complicates the difficult situation.
The religious camp is, at the present time, the most open to manipulation by Nicaragua’s enemies. Through measures enacted with the State of Emergency and control over money coming into the country, there is less space for economic and political manipulation. But the religious area affects the majority of the people and is the area in which they have the strongest feelings. Thus if the government can be portrayed as repressing religion or being insensitive to popular religiosity, this can cause major problems for progress of the revolution in Nicaragua.
SECT VERSUS DENOMINATIONAs in most Latin American countries, non-Catholic churches are a small minority. Most estimates are that Protestants (or “Evangelicals”, used here as a synonym for Protestant) comprise only about 15% of the population. The largest denomination is the Moravian Church, the predominant religion among the Miskito Indians and the Creole, or black, population on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. It is also the oldest non-Catholic church here, having begun its work on the Atlantic Coast in 1849.
According to CEPAD, the social-service umbrella group to which the majority of non-Catholic denominations belong, at a meeting in Panama in 1910, the leading Protestant churches divided up Latin America for their missionary work. As a result, the Pentecostal, fundamentalist churches are the predominant Protestant churches in Nicaragua. The Assemblies of God is the largest denomination of the Pacific Coast.
Since the recent problems, in which various temples or churches were taken over by people from the mass organizations, there has been a strong debate over what is a sect, what is a denomination, and what those distinctions mean. In recent weeks, some 30 non-Catholic Churches have been taken over, although the majority of them have since been returned.
Some generally shared criteria of the major Protestant and ecumenical Organizations here define a sect as a more “fringe” type of religion characterized by rigidity of belief, non-cooperation with other churches, a belief that outside their church there is no salvation, and an emphasis on insignificant details (such as women wearing head coverings). It has also been CEPAD’s position that its members are denominations, while other churches are sects. However, when trying to apply those criteria to some of the churches in question, or when trying to apply those criteria to some of the churches in question, or when trying to apply criteria that may work in Managua to the rural area, there is a great deal of confusion. Popularly, the people use “secta” interchangeably with “evangélicos” to refer to any non-Catholic church.
The three churches that are most frequently cited by critics as being “sectas” and being, at least by omission, counterrevolutionary are the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists. The first two are commonly considered to be non-Christian religions. The Adventists here are more an enigma – some consider them Protestant, others not. Dr. Parajón, one of the CEPAD leaders, said his experience with the Adventists has been that they have had an attitude of cooperation. Ten Jehovah Witnesses were asked to leave the country in February for anti-government activities.
PROBLEMSThe activities that have caused a strong reaction from the people and the government have been that some of the non-Catholic churches have preached a strong message of non-participation in community activities, such as health campaigns, adult education, volunteer night watch, the militia. There are also less serious but still annoying problem areas, and one of these is the use by many of the non-Catholic churches of loudspeakers and electronic musical instruments. In some areas, this issue has been resolved through dialogue, but in others it continues to be a source of irritation to residents, especially when it involves all-night prayer vigils or when the services coincide with adult-school classes.
An ecumenical spirit is not very prevalent in Nicaragua. Exceptions are the Atlantic Coast cities of Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields, which have had ecumenical pastors’ meetings for the last fifteen years among pastors from the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Moravian and Baptist Churches. In the rest of the country and between the Catholics and the other non-Catholic groups, feelings range from caution to open hostility, and practices are reminiscent of earlier historical periods.
In several different rural areas, sources tell of churches who pay a stipend to anyone who converts a Catholic, extremely abrasive and antagonistic proselytizing practices, twisting of Bible texts, and a heavy emphasis on the belief that without that particular church, the person will suffer eternal damnation. This has sometimes resulted in emotional scenes at the bedside of dying persons as last ditch efforts are made to convert them.
There has been much emphasis in the preaching of the sects and some denominations on “God’s punishment”. Many reports at the time of the floods in May told of pastors saying that God sent the floods as a punishment because of the “communist direction” that the government is supposedly taking.
One woman whom we interviewed told us that her mother had left Nicaragua and gone to Miami after the Sandinista victory. She had become converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was told that the Sandinista government was bad, and that she should leave Nicaragua.
In several areas, the churches accused of offensive practices were denominations which at least nominally belong to CEPAD. As one of their directors, Sixto Ulloa, told us, the absence of a hierarchical relationship within the Protestant churches, and even more so among the membership of CEPAD, eliminates any monitoring, much less control, of what its members do, especially in the more remote, isolated areas.
The common denominator of the churches that were criticized was that they preach a religious imperative to withdraw from any kind of community involvement. In fact, one of the reasons given for some conversions was the desire by some former Catholics to have a religious justification to not participate in health campaigns, night watch, etc. Another “doctrine” preached by some of the rural churches is that a convert is automatically unmarried to his/her spouse. Strict tithing is practiced in the rural areas, which the pastor receives for his own use; monies for building or other needs are collected over and above the tithe.
Most non-Catholic denominations in Nicaragua have their home church in the United States, and much of the preparation is pro-U.S. oriented. For a long time many of the pastors were Americans. Now the vast majority are native clergy, but they often have acquired the pro-U.S. perspective. In rural areas, many pastors have little if any theological or pastoral preparation. Some denominations have as little as three months of training or workshops. There is also no supervision or advisors in many of the more remote areas, which enables the pastors to determine their own beliefs and practices, and even extensive deviations from the “orthodox” creed is seldom known by the mother church. Some are really self-proclaimed churches, as there are no laws governing requirements for becoming a church, or for becoming a pastor.
According to Assemblies of God pastor Miguel Angel Casco, “The theological formation of the sects and of some Protestant denominations form part of a pro-American ideological plan... In the majority of the biblical education centers, control of education was in the hands of North American missionaries, which meant that the nationals were recipients of a theology with a heavy North American ideological emphasis, and this was fortified with anti-communist, anti-Marxist material.”
In all areas which we investigated, the distinction between sect and denomination was not significant, nor did membership in CEPAD hold up as a measurement for whether or not a given church was causing problems in a community. The majority of the complaints that we heard were against denominations, especially Assemblies of God churches.
LINKS TO THE COUNTERREVOLUTIONThe most serious problem is that in many areas there has been a proven link between armed counterrevolutionary activity and pastors of various churches. The most numerous and most publicized incidents involved Moravian pastors and lay pastors, especially in Northern Zelaya. The Moravian Church has denounced this activity and revoked the pastoral status of any of their people who were involved. Recently the Moravian Church in the U.S. wrote a strong letter protesting certain government actions. But the letter also clearly recognized the role of international interference in the Miskito problems. The letter said, “From the viewpoint of many U.S. policy analysts, attempts to destabilize Nicaragua are mischievous, and probably self-defeating: more likely to hasten than to halt the erosion of economic pluralism and political freedom in the country as a whole. From the viewpoint of the Miskito, the result has been catastrophic: it has wrought terror and destruction, divided families and left thousands homeless, and brought down on all of them the hostility and suspicion of the authorities”. The letter makes an urgent call for the U.S. to end its involvement in the destabilization and counterrevolutionary activities against Nicaragua for the sake of the Miskito people.
A spokesperson for the Moravian Church here said that there had been a revision of the verdicts of all those convicted in the “Red Christmas” conspiracy in December. All sentences have been reduced, and many of those who were previously convicted have been exonerated and released. Twelve pastors, Miskito and Sumu, are in prison at the present time, according to a Moravian pastor. Some people familiar with the situation believe that the counterrevolutionaries within the country are getting supplies from helicopter drops made from the U.S. ships that have been off the coast of Honduras, as well as from bases within Honduras. The pastor said that the military situation in Northern Zelaya is extremely serious, and this is leading to serious food shortages in many villages and causing continuing tensions between the authorities and the people.
According to witnesses from the Bocana de Paiwas area of Southern Zelaya, the most active areas of the “contras” are also the most active areas of the “sectas”. The killing in that area began on July 7, 1981, and since then about 30 have been killed. The armed bands, which are described as Nicaraguans, seem to have targeted anyone who is active in community work – health promoters, UNAG (small agricultural producers) people, teachers, Delegates of the Word of the Catholic Church, militia. They reportedly frequently stop people on the roads and read them a “death list”.
Emiliano Pérez was one victim of these groups. He was the local judge as well as a Delegate of the Word and known community leader. After he was killed, the band entered the church and told the people that Emiliano had been killed as a warning to them not to participate in community work. Julio, another community leader and teacher, was kidnapped along with 16 others. He and one other person were found dead, the others have never been found.
A few weeks ago, a young Capuchin pre-novice from the Paiwas area who was home on vacation saw his father murdered, his mother and sisters raped. The fate of the seminarian and his uncle, who were apparently kidnapped, is still not certain.
The leader of one of these bands, killed in a confrontation with the army, was a former Catholic layman, at one time a member of the Junta Católica of the area.
He converted to one of the Protestant denominations, became a pastor with little if any training, and was then killed in combat. According to a church worker in the area, two or three other pastors have been killed in combat in the area of La Cruz del Río Grande.
One of the persons kidnapped after the massacre at San Francisco del Norte on July 24, later escaped and told of his experience in the “contra” camp in Honduras. Those who had been kidnapped were told that those who joined the “sectas” would not be harmed. This outraged the people in one border village who then “seized” one of the Protestant churches.
This take-over of a church in a small border town was broadcast over the clandestine Honduran radio station, operated by the counterrevolutionary groups there, the following day. Villagers were quite concerned with the rapidity with which this relatively unimportant incident in a small, out-of-the-way village was known in Honduras. Many villagers along the northern border have had their names broadcast as being on the “hit list” of the “contras”.
Two days before the massacre at San Francisco del Norte, a group of Bible-carrying itinerant preachers came to the town and talked to the people, including those on duty at the militia post. No one knew these preachers. In the attack, just two days later, slogans such as “with God and patriotism we will drive out the communists” were found on the walls of houses in the town.
One of the CEPAD directors and two Catholic priests with whom we spoke had very similar reactions to this type of manipulation and perversion of religion. “No one who does those kinds of things can be a Christian”.
Needless to say, this abuse of religion by some individual pastors and/or some denominations or sects breeds suspicion and feeds historic distrust of non-Catholics. It obscures the very fine work in health and education, as well as in religion, done by many churches in Nicaragua both in the past and in the present. It increases friction and accentuates differences between the different denominations themselves, and it certainly plays into the hands of those trying to subvert the process.
REACTIONS FROM THE MASS ORGANIZATIONS AND THE GOVERNMENTWe spoke with two young people from one of the mass organizations in a barrio of Managua who had taken part in the takeover of three “sectas”. According to them, the actions of the members of these churches, their refusal to participate in any community projects, was what first upset the local organizations. At a barrio level, the decision was made to take over the churches. According to these young people, there was no government order, nor any prior government knowledge that the takeovers were going to take place. However, it would have been apparent from similar actions in other areas in recent weeks that the action would not meet with disapproval. After the takeover, the people told us they found U.S. military manuals and pamphlets in one of the churches.
The problem, according to a member of the Barrio Monseñor Lezcano CDS, is no longer that the “sectas” are not in agreement with the revolution, but that they are now active counterrevolutionaries. They are not just preaching against the government but are carrying out the words in actions.
In several instances, when churches of CEPAD members were taken, negotiations at a barrio level were carried out and the churches were returned to the pastors. CEPAD has made the decision that in the event of a full-scale invasion, all of their churches will be placed at the disposal of the government and the people to be used for refugee centers, storage facilities, etc.
The fact that several CEPAD churches have been taken over would seem to indicate that the sect-denomination criteria is not what the people in the barrios use to determine their attitude toward a particular church, but rather the participation or hindrance of community activities by the people in the church or its pastor.
According to a religious worker in a town near the northern border, several cooperatives in the area had to fold because when members converted to the non-Catholic denominations they were told that participation in the cooperatives is against the religion.
There have been charges of a great increase in the numbers of “sects” since the revolution. The best assessment that we could make was that there was some increase in numbers of different denominations or sects, but it was much more an increase in numbers of temples, giving the impression of a mushrooming of different groups. Many denominations have the custom of giving their temple an individual name instead of the name of the denomination, such as “Omega” or “Rose of Sharon”. Also, unlike the Catholics, who have one church which serves a rather large geographic area and thousands of people, the Protestants have many churches with from 10 to 25 members, again giving an appearance of much greater participation than actually exists.
CONCLUSIONSNicaragua is not the only country in the area to be having problems with the sects. They are currently causing serious problems in Panama. The government has recently announced measures to stop the influx of these groups and the decision not to renew the visas of their personnel.
According to the international human rights group, Pax Christi, “The whole issue of polarization is centered around this one question: being a Christian, should one support the revolution led by the FSLN, or should one adopt a counterrevolutionary attitude? This is however not an internal church discussion but a political one…”
At the height of all the recent activities, on August 16 the Frente took the positive action of issuing a statement reaffirming its Document on Religion, issued in November of 1980. It reaffirmed the government’s commitment to religious liberty, to religious pluralism.
The government has been in the very difficult position of being confronted with sometimes openly counterrevolutionary activity under the guise of religion, so that action against those activities can easily be depicted as repression of religion. This has sometimes led to non-action on the part of the government. The popular organizations then take matters into their own hands and church takeovers or confrontations result. The danger is, as one member of the CDS told us, that “our own people are well-disciplined and we can control them. But in these situations, sometimes other people get involved who do not have that discipline and cannot be controlled by us, since they don’t belong to our group”. Thus unfortunate results can occur which can further deteriorate an already difficult situation.
Certainly those within the churches have not always acted prudently either. As one CEPAD leader says, “Any religious group can become sectarian. Catholic fanaticism is as sectarian as Protestant fanaticism. It is the work of Protestant theology to guard the church against its own tendencies toward sectarianism”.
In the future it can be expected that efforts will increase to neutralize the effectiveness of progressive forces within the churches in Nicaragua by playing on the differences and internal conflicts. Efforts will also be made to stop church support for Nicaragua abroad by media campaigns portraying the Sandinista government as extremely anti-religion; also efforts will be stepped up to portray those churches or sectors that continue to support the Nicaraguan process as “communist sympathizers”. This is evident in the attacks in the U.S. media against congregations such as Maryknoll and attacks against the United Methodist and other Protestant churches.
According to Moravian pastor Norman Bent, officials of that church meet frequently with the government in an ongoing effort to improve relations, and these meetings are beginning to bear fruit.
On September 2, Comandante Daniel Ortega Coordinator of the Government Junta, met with 300 Protestant pastors, representing 45 different denominations. In his address to them Comandante Ortega emphasized that the greatest necessity and one on which they could all agree was that of avoiding war in Central America. He said that the mass organizations have been instructed to avoid acting in such a way as to provoke confrontations, thus giving fuel to those trying to create divisions within the Nicaraguan people. The Junta leader also said that all churches which have been taken over will be returned.
Nicaragua has recently been visited by Protestant leaders from both Europe and the United States, including recent delegations from the World Council of Churches and the U.S. National Council of Churches. The government encourages such visits. The firsthand experience of these and other visitors can do much to dispel patently false charges of religious repression in Nicaragua.
Original in English