The Church remains strong in Central and South America but continues to face political tensions, violence, extreme poverty, crime and loss of membership to competing sects.
Cuba, an island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, is 150 km south of Key West, Florida. Cuba’s population, now over 11 million, had been 85% Roman Catholic prior to Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 and is now only an estimated 32%. The 1976 Constitution proclaimed the atheistic and materialistic objectives of the government, even as it guaranteed religious liberty. While “scientific socialism” has not been proclaimed as the objective of the government since 1992, persecution and strict government controls of religious activity continue, in spite of Castro stepping down as leader in 2008.
Bordering the North Pacific Ocean, Guatemala, and Honduras, El Salvador has a population of just over 7 million, of which 83% are Roman Catholic and 17% are Protestant. Religious freedom, guaranteed by the 1983 Constitution, is complete, but the country is marked by poverty, violence, and pollution. Poverty affects almost half of the population, and an estimated 13,000 children work in poor conditions. Since 2004, ten people a day, on average, have been murdered, and nearly 10,000 young people are in gangs. In 2006 a priest was stoned to death, possibly by gang members, after receiving death threats for a number of months.
Guatemala, which lies between Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, has a population which is about 75% Catholic and 25% Protestant and indigenous Mayan beliefs. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution and has been effective in Guatemala since the 1980s. Political violence and organized crime are serious problems and assassinations are a common occurrence (13 members of the political opposition have been killed since 2004). Organized crime, which kills more people today than during the civil, has made Guatemala that second most violent country in Latin America after Colombia. There are more than 3 million guns in the country, which has a population of just over 13 million, and there are more than 5,000 victims of gun violence a year. Corruption, inflation and slow economic growth have not helped the situation, and more than 50% of the people live in poverty. Members of both the Catholic Church and of Protestant churches are regularly the targets of armed attackers. The 36 year guerilla war, which formally came to an end only in 1996, claimed over 100,000 lives and created some 1 million refugees.
Located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean and sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s 8.9 million people are 80% Catholic and 16% Protestant, although at least half the population or more also practices voodoo. Freedom of religion was guaranteed in the 1987 Constitution and is complete. Haiti is the poorest and most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere, and it has been plagued by continual political violence for much of its history. Unemployment stands officially at 60%, and life expectancy is less than 50 for men and less than 54 for women. Over 1 million Haitians have fled the country in search of a better life. Many roads are impassable and many areas lack electricity or clean water. Crime and insecurity mark life in Haiti, which suffers from drugs, kidnapping, and prostitution. Haiti is also prone to damaging tropical storms and hurricanes. As a result of the extreme poverty and misery in Haiti, the Church is almost completely dependent on foreign aid, and priests do not always have enough to eat in certain isolated parishes.
Bordering the United States, Guatemala, Belize, the Gulf of Mexico, and the North Pacific Ocean, Mexico has a population of nearly 110 million, of which 76.5% are Roman Catholic, 6.3% are Protestant, 0.3% are other, 13.8% are unspecified, and 3.1% are none. The Constitution of 1917 allowed for freedom of worship, but constrains and restrictions exist, including the forbidding of religious education in public schools and the need for government approval for the construction of religious buildings; the government also restricts preaching by bishops and priests on political and social issues. Poverty, violence, and kidnappings are on the rise, and 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. Among the most poor are Central American immigrants trying to reach the U.S. The bloody, ongoing drug war claims close to 3,000 lives a year. In 2007, a priest was shot to death. In the weeks prior to his death, he was harassed, stabbed, and his car was hit by machine gun fire.
Nicaragua, which lies between Honduras, Costa Rica, the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, has a population of almost 5.8 million people, of which 72.9% are Catholic, 15.1 % are Evangelical, 1.5% are Moravian, 0.1% are Episcopal, 1.9% are other, and 8.5% have no declared religious affiliation. Religious freedom exists in Nicaragua and was guaranteed by the Constitution of 1982, which also declared the separation of Church and State. Poverty, hunger and corruption are serious problems in Nicaragua, where 80% live on less than $2 a day and where 35% are illiterate. The country is still recovering from the Sandinista revolution and civil war which lasted from 1979 to 1991 and which left 50,000 dead.
Argentina, in southern South America bordering the South Atlantic Ocean, Chile, and Uruguay, has a population of over 40 million, 92% of which are at least nominally Catholic, although the number of practicing Catholics may be as few as 20% (Protestant, Jewish, and other making up the other 8%). Its Constitution dates back to 1853, but it was a 1978 amendment that formally guaranteed complete religious liberty, even if articles still stipulate that the government “holds to the Catholic faith.” The country has suffered through political and economic crises and violent public protests since WWII, mostly recently in 2001-2, but its economy has recovered strongly since then. In 2006 a 77 year old priest was stabbed to death in his home, but police were unable to determine a motive.
Bolivia, in Central South America in the midst of Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile, is 95% Roman Catholic, with the remaining 5% of its population of over 9 million being Protestant, particularly Evangelical Methodist. The 1967 Constitution guarantees religious freedom, although its gives special recognition to the Catholic Church. More than 400 Protestant churches are active in Bolivia, and the current government has shown socialist and anti-Christian tendencies. Bolivia is also one of the poorest countries on the continent, with 60% of the people falling below the poverty line, and in the countryside only 1/3 have access to clean drinking water.
Bordering almost a dozen countries and with a population of over 190 million, Brazil is easily the largest and most populous country in South America. Religiously, 73.6% of the population is nominally Catholic while 15.4% are Protestant, and the remaining 11% is divided among Spiritualists, Bantu/voodoo practitioners and others. Religious freedom is complete apart from restrictions in certain territories on native religious practices, and churches enjoy certain economic advantages. The Church has been undergoing a serious loss of membership to competing religious sects. According to one study, the Catholic majority has dropped 10% since the 1990s, and each year an estimated 1% leaves the Church. Although economic conditions have been improving over the past few years, poverty and crime remain significant problems. A priest who was serving drug addicts and children living the streets was murdered in 2006.
On the coast of the South Pacific Ocean and bordering Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, Chile has a population of some 16.45 million, of which 70% are Roman Catholic, 15.1% are Evangelical, and 1.1% are Jehovah’s Witness while the rest either have no religion or are divided between other Christian denominations and religions. The Constitution of 1980 guarantees religious freedom and the separation of Church and State, and freedom of worship is respected. Persistent poverty is a significant problem in Chile, and many suffer from poor housing and lack of access to consumer goods. Alcoholism, drug use, child abandonment, and violence also mark Chilean society.
In the north of South America, Colombia has a population of just over 45 million that is 90% Catholic and 10% other. Freedom of religion was proclaimed in the Constitution of 1991, members of the government may not make references to the Catholic Church. The country has been marked by political and drug-related violence for decades which has forced over 3.5 million to flee their homes. Indigenous peoples and peoples of African descent also face discrimination, hunger, sickness and social exclusion. In 2007, an Italian missionary was killed and another priest was attacked at a seminary at Manizales. The aggressors fled the scene in the missionaries’ car after stealing objects of value.
Ecuador, located at the Equator in Western South America near Colombia and Peru, has a population of almost 14 million people, of which 95% are Catholic and 5% are other. The country enjoys complete religious liberty, which was guaranteed by law in 1979, although clergy may not hold political office. Border conflicts and instability have marked Ecuador since WWII, and political tensions continue. Some 70% of the people in Ecuador live below the poverty line.
South of Ecuador and Colombia and on the South Pacific coast, Peru is predominantly Roman Catholic (80%) while the remained for the country’s 29.18 million people are either Seventh Day Adventist (1.4%), other Christian (0.7%), other (0.6%) or unspecified (16.3%). The 1979 Constitution guarantees religious freedom and freedom of worship and proclaims the Catholic Church to be “an important element in the historical, cultural and moral development of Peru.” The right of religious education is given to families, including in state-run schools. Poverty, corruption, unemployment and the growth of various religious sects continue to challenge the Church. Terrorist attacks on the Church have also been committed by Shining Path guerrillas in certain areas.
On the northern coast of South America, Venezuela lies next to Colombia, Brazil and Guyana. Its population of over 26 million is 96% Catholic, at least nominally, and 4% Protestant or other. The socialist government of President Hugo Chavez has been marked by tensions with the Catholic Church, and Church leaders have been mocked and insulted. Political and religious liberties, as well as freedom of the press and freedom of speech, have been threatened as President Chavez has attempted to gain more control over Venezuelan society and government. In 2007 inflation was at 22.7%, one of the highest rates in the world. Poverty, unemployment, the neglect of the elderly, children in the street and lack of quality health care also mark Venezuelan society. In 2008, a priest was murdered in an apparent robbery.
Primary source for population and religion estimates: http://www.cia.gov/
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