Bolivian Villagers Observe Truce Following Church Demolition

Friday, April 23, 2004

Evangelicals are allowed to hold worship services but cannot rebuild their chapel.

by David Miller

ORURO, Bolivia, April 23 (Compass) -- Quechua-speaking villagers in Bolivia are living under an uneasy truce two months after an irate mob destroyed the sole evangelical church in their remote Andean community.

Community officials in Chucarasi have signed an accord with members of the local congregation of the Church of God. In return for pledges from evangelical Christians to “respect” traditional customs, their animist neighbors have agreed to allow them to continue to hold worship services in the community. However, the Church of God will not be allowed to rebuild its demolished chapel.

A rural community of 300 people in the department (state) of Potosi 100 miles southeast of Arturo, Chucarasi is inhabited by indigenous farmers, the majority of whom follow the animist religious traditions of their Inca forebears.

Conflict erupted in the community in late February following the celebration of Carnaval, a festival the village customarily observes with Christo-pagan rituals, dancing and heavy drinking. Since converting to evangelical Christianity several years ago, members of the Church of God in Chucarasi have declined to take part in Carnaval celebrations.

When a severe hail storm struck the village two days after the festival, animist villagers became convinced that evil spirits were punishing the community for allowing the Christians to abandon tradition.

Townspeople attacked Church of God elder Fortunato Bernal and beat him unconscious. Later the same evening, they completely dismantled the congregation’s adobe chapel with picks and wrecking bars. (See Compass Direct report,“Angry Mob Destroys Church in Bolivian Andes,” March 8)

Village leaders later insisted that the evangelical believers either renounce their faith or leave the community.

“The whole town rose up like a tiger against us -- everybody, as one man,” Gregorio Conde, the farmer-evangelist who introduced evangelical Christianity to the village in 1997, told Compass.

Conde and Bernal traveled to Oruro to alert denominational leaders of the crisis. In response, police, military and judiciary officials joined representatives of Churches United, an ecumenical association representing Oruro’s evangelical community, to form a special commission that visited Chucarasi on March 9 to negotiate a settlement.

“It would have been very helpful if we could have exchanged ideas and explained how the thing that happened was simply a normal occurrence of nature, but it was impossible to get a hearing,” said Victor Quispe, national president of Church of God. “The only one who spoke was the army commander, so the rest of us prayed that God would use that man, and that’s what happened.”

Colonel Luis Morales, commander of a local army base who arrived with a squadron of soldiers, managed to convince Chucarasi leaders to heed the negotiators.

“I am here to see that the constitution of Bolivia is respected,” Col. Morales told community elders, “and you must respect the religious freedom of the evangelicals. If not, we will take the five people into custody whose names are in the police report (regarding the February 28 attack). But I don’t want any violence.”

Quispe said village leaders deliberated from 11:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. before signing the document that guarantees evangelicals the right to live in the community and continue holding Sunday services.

The agreement also stipulates that Church of God members must contribute quotas of food and money to community festivals. Furthermore, it expressly prohibits the congregation from reconstructing its demolished chapel.

“There will never again be another evangelical church here,” one village elder reportedly vowed during the discussions.

In the interests of avoiding more violence, the commission did not press the issue. Nor did security officers move to arrest the five men accused of leading the attack on the church. “We decided to forgive them,” Conde said.

Due to community pressure, he said, three baptized members of the congregation have declared their intention to leave the evangelical faith and return to animist practice. Conde and Bernal are not among them.

“We declared in the meeting that, although we might die for it, we are going to follow Christ,” Conde said. “We have vowed to serve the Lord and will never give up.”

The Church of God in Chucarasi numbers 36 baptized members and an average of 64 in attendance at weekly worship. Three years ago, the congregation built the adobe chapel that was demolished on February 28.

Conde said believers observed a three-day fast during Holy Week, praying for community reconciliation. Despite the recent setback, they are going forward with plans to celebrate the annual junta (camp meeting), which draws several hundred evangelical believers to Chucarasi in late August for two days of open air worship.

“We are going to prepare for our junta on August 30,” Andres Pedro, the congregation’s pastoral deacon, told Compass. “You are invited to attend.”

Quispe added, “The brothers and sisters remain firm in the faith, and I am certain that sometime in the not-too-distant future, the whole town will be worshipping the Lord.”