Angry Mob Destroys Church in Bolivian Andes

Monday, March 8, 2004

Animists blame evangelical Christians for severe storm.

by David Miller

MIAMI, March 8 (Compass) -- An angry mob of Quechua-speaking Indians destroyed the only evangelical church in the remote village of Chucarasi in the Bolivian Andes on February 28 after beating a congregational elder unconscious. Villagers apparently attacked their Christian neighbors because they blamed them for a hail storm that damaged local crops.

Trouble began among the 140 inhabitants of Chucarasi, an indigenous community located 100 miles southeast of the city of Oruro in the province of Bustillos, during the annual Carnaval festival celebrated to mark the beginning of Lent. Like many traditional Quechua communities, Chucarasi observes the holiday with veneration of Christo-pagan icons, ritual dances and excessive consumption of alcohol. Andean animists believe such activities are essential to appease local deities and avoid natural disaster.

Since converting to evangelical Christianity several years ago, the 30 families belonging to the Church of God in Chucarasi have declined to take part in Carnaval celebrations. Instead, they spent the festival days in their fields tending crops.

On February 27, two days after Carnaval ended, a severe hail storm struck Chucarasi, damaging fields of potatoes and grain and fueling fears that evil spirits were punishing the community for the evangelicals’ refusal to participate in Carnaval. Village officials announced a community meeting for 6 p.m. the following day and summoned the church members to be present.

All but one member of the church stayed away from the meeting, suspecting that village leaders would insist, as they had done repeatedly in the past, that they renounce their evangelical faith and return to animism. At the appointed hour, the congregation gathered in their modest adobe chapel to pray for reconciliation.

Church of God elder Fortunato Bernal did comply with the summons, thinking his position as an elected community official would grant him immunity from danger. But when Bernal arrived at the meeting, ruffians seized him and beat him until he lost consciousness.

Word of the attack on Bernal reached the Christians meeting in the chapel, along with a second summons to appear before community officials at 11 that night. Fearing more violence, church members withdrew to a nearby mountain peak to continue their prayer vigil.

Witnesses say that, around midnight, an irate mob carrying picks, axes and wrecking bars arrived at the church. Finding the building empty, they destroyed Bibles and hymnals and smashed the pulpit and pews before dismantling the windows, doors, roof and walls of the building. Believers returned from their vigil to find a pile of rubble where their chapel had stood.

In the days following the attack, Church of God leaders filed a complaint with the sub-prefect of Bustillos province, demanding reparations. The sub-prefect reportedly sided with the Chucarasi animists, however, setting compensation for the demolished church at only 25 percent of its real value and refusing to arrest the ruffians who attacked Bernal.

Emboldened by the ruling, Chucarasi leaders insisted that evangelical believers either renounce their faith or leave the community. Also, death threats began to surface against Gregorio Conde, the man credited with introducing evangelical Christianity to Chucarasi in 1997. At present, the Church of God congregation Conde planted there counts one-third of the community among its membership.

The increasing tension prompted Bernal and Conde to travel to Oruro to seek the support of Church of God national leaders.

“People say that the preaching of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ goes against their customs and traditions,” said Abel Colque in Oruro. Over the years, Colque and other church leaders have witnessed dozens of confrontations like the one unfolding in Chucarasi.

“Our brothers testify that as soon as the gospel begins to penetrate some rural community, villagers immediately try to suppress it,” he said. “For that reason, we evangelicals want to establish a precedent in this community, showing that the law protects evangelical Christians as much as anyone else.”

Since its founding in a store-front in 1963, the Church of God has established local congregations in over 200 rural communities in the Andes. It is one of several evangelical churches in Bolivia that is experiencing steady growth among Quechua- and Aymara-speaking native Americans, people groups considered resistant to the gospel until recent years.

At press time, representatives of the Church of God, the Evangelical Christian Union and the inter-denominational organization Churches United were preparing to travel to Bustillos province to negotiate a peaceful solution to the Chucarasi crisis.

“The news from the community is that, if somebody comes to intervene, they will be killed,” Colque told Compass. “For that reason, we would like to ask our brothers to pray for the evangelical community there.”