The relentless persecution of Christians in Latin America

When considering the persecution of Christians, we often think of the Middle East, Africa, or communist regimes in Asia. However, there is a growing trend of persecution in Latin America, where Christians make up at least 90 percent of the population. Attacks on priests, the Catholic Church, and Christianity are increasing across left-leaning Latin American nations.

In Central and South America, both state and non-state actors are targeting the church. Governments condemn the church, pass laws restricting its activities, and imprison or expel priests and church officials. Criminal gangs, paramilitary groups, cartels, and armed guerrillas see the church as a threat to their power and often threaten or kill religious figures who oppose the drug trade.

The countries most affected include Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Mexico is considered the most dangerous country for Catholic priests, and Colombia ranks among the top 50 worst places to be a Christian.

Communist Cuba

In Cuba, Catholic priests and other religious face harassment and arrests, largely due to the communist government's desire to maintain strict control and suppress dissent. The 2023 Social Communication Law prohibits criticism of the government, even within a religious context, targeting religious leaders who criticise the regime or support human rights activists. This includes harassment, detention, and state surveillance.

One notable case is Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, pastor and leader of the Monte de Sion Independent Church, who has been imprisoned since 2021 for participating in a peaceful protest. The Cuban government imposes severe restrictions on religious activities, censoring religious publications and banning Bible sales in bookstores. People have been detained on accusations that they intended to pray for an end to communism, and the mothers of political prisoners are banned from praying for their release.

Havana strictly controls the construction of new churches. In 2020, one of the first new churches since the 1959 communist revolution was constructed. Home churches and underground churches are banned. Cuba is on the US State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Mexican murders

In Mexico, Augustinian priest Javier García Villafañe was found shot to death in May in Michoacán state. Days earlier, the archbishop of Durango, Faustino Armendáriz, survived an attempted stabbing in the cathedral sacristy after Mass. These incidents highlight why Mexico is considered the most dangerous place to be a priest.

Between 2010 and 2020, over 30 priests were killed, many of whom had denounced the cartels. Religious figures have become particular targets of the cartels, and like most cartel-related murders, these also went unsolved and unpunished.

Former Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a socialist known for being soft on cartels, claimed ignorance of the threats and violence against the church, even blaming bishops who accused his government of inaction.

Father Alberto Gómez Sánchez, who directs a migrants’ house in Chiapas, explained that Catholics are hopeful Mexico’s new president, Claudia Sheinbaum, will curtail cartel power and protect priests due to her record in reducing crime as mayor of Mexico City.

However, she has stated she will follow López Obrador’s policies, who was ineffective in reigning in the cartels and denied the violence against priests. It remains uncertain if she will deviate from his approach, and even if she does, success is unlikely given the cartels' entrenched power in the army, police, courts, and Congress.

Nicaraguan nightmare

Nicaragua has been designated on the US State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Under President Daniel Ortega, the government has been accused of targeting church leaders who criticise state policies or support protest movements. Several priests have been harassed, detained, or expelled from the country.

Between 2018 and 2020, there were 190 attacks on churches in Nicaragua. The government has also been restricting church activities, including a ban on public religious events such as Lenten and Holy Week processions.


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Last August, the Ortega government seized the prestigious Jesuit-run Central American University (UCA), confiscating its buildings and evicting over a dozen Jesuit priests. He ordered the dissolution of the Society of Jesus in Nicaragua and seized its bank accounts and real estate, including hundreds of schools in rural areas that served underprivileged communities.

Managua suspended diplomatic relations with the Vatican in March of last year. This decision came after Pope Francis likened the Nicaraguan government to a dictatorship, escalating tensions between the two entities. In response, President Ortega ordered the closure of both the Vatican Embassy in Managua and the Nicaraguan Embassy in Rome.

Additionally, the Ortega-led government expelled 222 political prisoners, including Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, who refused to leave the country. Alvarez was charged with treason and undermining national integrity, stripped of his citizenship, and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Two other priests from the Diocese of Granada, Frs. Manuel García and José Urbina, continue to be held on similar charges.

Venezuelan violence

In Venezuela, under the regimes of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, the Catholic Church has frequently clashed with the government. Police checkpoints and stringent censorship of written materials and even homilies are common.

The Church's criticism of government policies, especially on human rights and social justice issues, has led to numerous conflicts. Priests and bishops have been arrested, threatened, and intimidated for their outspoken criticism. There have been instances where clergy were detained or harassed by security forces due to their involvement in political and social activism.

Colombian curtailment

Open Doors, an organisation monitoring Christian persecution worldwide, ranks Colombia as the 34th most dangerous country for Christians.

Although Colombia does not have a socialist government, the current president, Gustavo Petro, who took office on 7 August 2022, is the first leftist president in the country's history. He has a background in liberation theology, a social-leaning movement within the Catholic Church focusing on social justice and the rights of the poor and oppressed.

While Petro may have some disagreements with the church, he is not vehemently anti-Christian. As a result, most of the persecution of Christians in the country comes at the hands of non-state armed groups.

Guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and paramilitary groups are primarily responsible for the violence against Christian leaders and communities. These groups target Christians who oppose their ideologies or provide humanitarian aid, viewing them as threats to their control and influence.

Both leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries see Christians as supporters of opposing political factions. Church leaders have been kidnapped, threatened, or killed, while Christian communities have been targeted for their opposition to these ideologies and for providing humanitarian aid to conflict victims.

In addition to persecution by paramilitary and guerrilla groups, Christian members of indigenous communities in Colombia face repression from their animist peers, who blame them for rejecting traditional beliefs. This ostracisation makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

The persecution of Christians in Latin America stems from several sources. First, dictatorial regimes seek to remain in power and see Catholicism or Christianity as a threat. Second, a general leftward shift in Latin America has led to socialist governments opposing religion, particularly Christianity and Catholicism.

Finally, drug cartels target priests for speaking out against them. Many countries are affected by more than one of these factors. Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua have socialist dictatorial governments. Mexico is plagued by both a leftward shift and drug cartels. Colombia has all three.

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Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image credit: Pexels


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