A culture war brings violence to Latin America
October 27 is International Religious Freedom Day, commemorating more than two decades of US government advocacy for global religious freedom under the bipartisan 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. But religious speech and action are increasingly under assault, not just in far off China or certain Middle Eastern countries, but right here in the Western Hemisphere. This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on what is happening, why it is happening, and what is to be done.
Latin America has become a dangerous place for people of religious conviction who stand against corruption and, surprisingly, for social witness against evils like abortion. Part of this is due to the return of radical Leftist dictatorial regimes. The two worst cases in the past half century were Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Both of these Latin American dictators were decidedly anti-Christian.
Ideologically, they were secular, anti-religious, self-styled Latin-Marxists who not only dismissed religion outright but thought religion to blame for poverty and oppression throughout Latin America. Of course, their own governments offered the worst track records for brutality, corruption , and outright theft of private property. This model of corrupt socialist authoritarianism was followed in the past decade by Brazil’s Lula da Silva, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the thuggish Ortega brothers in Nicaragua, and others.
In just the past two years, there has been a spate of attacks on Christians throughout the region, sanctioned by these Leftist governments. For instance, last year in Venezuela a pro-Maduro drug gang intimidated a Christian drug rehabilitation center by slicing crosses into the skin of staff members and then making them eat their own Bibles. Last year also saw pro-Maduro paramilitary forces physically attack the Catholic Archbishop of Caracas for his stance against political corruption.
In Cuba, evangelical pastors languished in jail alongside Catholic priests, some of whom were beaten, for participating in pro-democracy rallies during the summer of 2021. Last month, a senior Nicaraguan Bishop was interrogated with priests, seminarians, and Catholic laity after weeks under house arrest for the Archbishop’s so-called ‘provocative statements’ made against the corrupt regime of Daniel Ortega. You may recall that the Ortega brothers led the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in the 1980s and were thrown out of office due to their ineffective policies and corruption. Amazingly, Daniel Ortega is back, and his wife is now the country’s vice president. In the past 12 months, more than 200,000 people have fled the violence of the authoritarian Ortega regime.
The culture war that we see in the United States is even more violent in most Latin American capitals today.
A particularly worrisome situation involves increased violence against religious leaders for their pro-life beliefs. Many of us are familiar with the grotesque statistic that over seventy pro-life organizations and crisis pregnancy centers in the United States have been attacked since the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs. Similar attacks are occurring in Latin America. A particularly egregious attack last year was the firebombing of a Catholic bishops’ office in Bolivia because of the Catholic bishops’ stance against abortion.
The culture war that we see in the United States is even more violent in most Latin American capitals today. It is expected to spread in urban areas due to increasingly militant LGBTQ activists in capitals such as Brasilia and Buenos Aires.
Why is all of this happening? Part of this is a culture of lawlessness in the region. But what is chilling is the fact that leftist government officials are giving the nod to attacking clergy and laity, imprisonment, fines, and church closures.
In a speech on this date last year, President Biden rightly summed up the problem: “Tragically, repressive governments, violent extremists, and other societal actors continue to persecute and abuse individuals and groups simply because of their religious identity, practices, or beliefs. Such abhorrent acts abuse human rights and human dignity. And, the repression that stifles religious freedom undermines political stability and economic development.”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has treated some of these regimes with kid gloves. Worse, President Biden’s administration has gone so far as to try to undermine the pro-life and pro-family president of Guatemala, whose nation is surrounded by the lawlessness of these radical leftist governments. The US government should retake the moral high ground and pressure these governments to back off attacks on clergy, seminarians, churches, charitable organizations, and parishioners. The moral credibility of the US government is at stake.
Moreover, Christian organizations in the United States should do more to partner across national boundaries on matters of religious freedom, evidence-based reporting, and anti-corruption. It’s up to us to make International Religious Freedom Day more than a date on the calendar.