Argentina: Mayor Closes Ministry Center

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pastor says closure of nearly completed building is part of harsh harassment campaign.

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (Compass Direct News) -- A pastor in Argentina has received threatening letters and had posters of his face displayed in Quilmes after the city's mayor closed down the congregation's newly constructed ministry center last March.

The Rev. Raul David Caballero said the closure for alleged building code violations is part of a harassment campaign mounted against him for exposing corruption in the administration of Sergio Villordo.

The pastor of the 1,200-member Church of the Encounter is also editor-in-chief of Perspectiva Sur, which has published articles critical of Villordo.

Church of the Encounter has appealed the closure decision, but few expect a prompt resolution as Villordo controls the municipal court.

Villordo ordered the three-story structure sealed off from public use on March 23 “for an indefinite period” because it posed a threat to “public security, hygiene and health.”

Rev. Caballero said the move was part of a harassment campaign mounted against him for publicly exposing corruption in the Villordo administration. According to the veteran Plymouth Brethren minister, the mayor regards him and his influential congregation as chief adversaries to his way of ruling Quilmes.

“Several times posters of my face have appeared in the streets, saying bad things about me,” Caballero told Compass. “I have received threatening letters. They’ve thrown stones at my office building and spray-painted the front walls. I’m being sued for half a million pesos [US$158,646] for inflicting ‘spiritual and moral damage and pain.’”

Caballero’s involvement in Quilmes’ public affairs grew out of his job as editor-in-chief of Perspectiva Sur, the largest newspaper in the city of 500,000 on the southern edge of Buenos Aires. He started the publication as a one-page newsletter in 1981, hoping it would help support his young family after he left a well-paying position as manager of a construction company to become the volunteer youth minister at Church of the Encounter.

When Caballero succeeded his father as senior pastor a year later, church attendance was running about 120. Caballero decided to continue living off income from Perspectiva so that Church of the Encounter could invest resources in evangelism and community service.

The church began to grow steadily. The church had never experienced a conflict of interest related to his newspaper work, Caballero said, until the crisis developed with Quilmes’ current mayor.

“We were good friends with Mr. Villordo during the elections, when we were running his campaign ads,” Caballero said. “He would come by and say what great work we were doing.”

Problems started after Villordo entered office in 2003. The new mayor insisted that Perspectiva Sur publish his photo and political commentary on its front pages on a nearly daily basis.

“We refused because most if it was not newsworthy,” Caballero said. “Besides, we are dedicated to free and independent speech.”

Tensions heightened when civic groups such as Quilmes United and The Public School Defense Forum began denouncing cases of neglect, corruption and misdeeds in the Villordo administration, often in the pages of Perspectiva. Caballero had also forged close alliances with these organizations, further alienating the mayor.

Villordo retaliated against Caballero’s civic activism, the pastor said, by closing down the nearly completed ministry complex.

Church of the Encounter planned to use the facility, located one-half block from the gymnasium-cum-community center where it meets for Sunday worship, to celebrate weddings, hold mid-week prayer services and conduct outreach to the city’s youth. The church’s elementary school also planned to use the extra space to expand its curriculum to the high school level.

Those plans are now on hold.

“Construction (on the building) went ahead 80 percent within full view of the public, without any municipal inspector raising any questions about a problem with the work,” Caballero pointed out, “until the earthquake struck.”

Church of the Encounter has appealed the closure decision in court, but Caballero said a prompt resolution is unlikely. In his capacity as judge over municipal infractions, he said, the mayor determines which cases are resolved and when.

Argentine Anomaly

Clashes between political leaders and Christian ministers occur rarely in Argentina, according to Dr. Ruben Proietti, president of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of the Republic of Argentina (ACIERA).

“Today in Argentina, thank God, problems of discrimination and religious abuse are uncommon,” Proietti told Compass in a telephone interview from his office in Buenos Aires. “We have always reached a solution . . . through the appropriate mechanisms. However, Caballero’s case is different.”

Proietti does not believe the problems in Quilmes constitute religious persecution. The ACIERA president has declined appeals from Caballero to intervene on his behalf, urging him instead to work through the city’s local Pastors Council to try to resolve the conflict.

The two church leaders have worked closely in the past to end religious discrimination that non-Roman Catholic Christians endure. In the late 1990s, Proietti recruited Caballero to head a national commission that drafted legislation on religious equality for the Argentine Congress.

The commission’s “religious incorporation” bill sought to extend the constitutional status and legal rights reserved for Catholic churches to the 12,000 Protestant congregations in Argentina. (See Compass Direct News, “Protestants in Argentina Seek Equality with Catholics,” May 19, 2000.)

The legislation never reached the floor of Congress, however, and Caballero left the commission when his two-year term expired. Had the religious incorporation law passed, ironically, it could have shielded Church of the Encounter from the aggressive government interference it is facing.

Caballero, though, is not looking back. He said he thinks the present struggle will produce positive results.

“All this is an investment in experience, in maturity, in penetration of our society,” he told Compass. “The believers dare to speak about the Lord and put their faith in action like never before. This whole thing is going to result in tremendous growth for the church, I know.”

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