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Evangelicals demand greater rights, fairer treatment

December 12, 2011

Currently mulling over which candidate to back in the 2012 presidential election, Mexico’s evangelical community will call on whoever wins to expand the political rights of religious groups and end the preferential treatment of the Catholic Church.

The next federal government must reform the Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship so that ministers can become elected public officials, as well as removing the ban on religious associations from owning media organizations or commenting on political affairs, said Arturo Farela Gutierrez, president of the National Fellowship of Evangelical Christian Churches of Mexico.

Citing honesty as a core principle of his religion, Farela argued that Christian-led governments would be less corrupt: “There’s no reason not to do this. The mayor of Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua, has over 100 evangelical employees and his is considered one of the least corrupt administrations. This is an example of what can be achieved.”

Farela also demanded that evangelical Christian organizations receive the same treatment as the Catholic Church. “Historically the Catholic Church has had preferential treatment by the Mexican federal authorities,” he told the Reporter. “In cases with various government ministries, the Roman Catholic Church always receives special attention, to speed up the process and achieve a favorable outcome.”

Moreover, “the Roman Catholic Church has received gifts of land in all of Mexico. Recently it was given the land where they built the Plaza Mariana next to the Basilica of Guadalupe,” Farela added. Finally, “the conventions organized by the Catholic hierarchy are usually attended by the highest authorities of the Ministry of Interior,” unlike those of the Evangelical Christian Church.

“Many politicians think they should be with the Catholic Church in the day as their wife, and the Christian church in the evening as their lover,” added Manuel Guzman, founder of the Alliance of Pastors in Puebla. “Everyone wants our votes, but nobody wants to have a real relationship with us. They want to give us a few sacks of cement, some chairs for Sunday school or an offering, as if we were political groupies.”

Favoritism towards the Catholic Church is unsurprising given that the vast majority of Mexicans are Catholic, although the percentage of devotees has gradually declined from 99.5 percent of the population in 1900 to just under 84 percent today.

Yet Mexico has long had a strong separation of church and state, dating back to the days of the Revolution, the Constitution of 1917, and its various anticlerical amendments. Article 130, for example, denied ministers freedom of association, the right to vote and freedom of speech, prohibiting them and religious organizations from criticizing the law or government.

While many of the anticlerical articles were removed in constitutional reforms in 1992, several restrictions on religious organizations remain to this day. Religious groups are not permitted to own print or electronic media outlets, governmental permission is required to broadcast religious ceremonies, and ministers are prohibited from being political candidates or holding public office.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for over 70 years, traditionally proclaimed itself secular, but Mexican politics has become more religiously conservative since the National Action Party (PAN) claimed the presidency in 2000. While many past PRI administrations viewed the Catholic Church as a threat and sought to marginalize it, the PAN has openly embraced its Catholic identity and looked to utilize it politically.

The Christian Church holds far less influence in Mexico and has been largely ignored by the two major parties, causing it to now look to the left for political support. Evangelical groups Encuentro Social and the Consejo Nacional de Organizaciones are discussing endorsing leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in next year’s presidential elections.

Having supported Felipe Calderon and signed an agreement with the PAN in 2006, the former organization has since grown disillusioned with the incumbent party and ruled out endorsing them again.

“The change in tone of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has caught our attention, because we have always talked about the importance of being able to generate national reconciliation,” said Hugo Eric Flores, leader of Encuentro Social. He claims the organization has 450,000 members who could provide strong backing for whichever of the candidates they choose to support.

Lopez Obrador also stands to gain the backing of the 10,000 members of the Consejo Nacional de Organizaciones, which supported him in 2006 and still considers him the “least bad” of the current candidates.

Meanwhile, Transformacion Nacional, another group that says it has over 10,000 supporters, plans to back Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI. “We are not the owners of the evangelical vote, but we are the right people because we come from different sectors and evangelical churches,” said Eduardo Lopez Valenzuela, president of the organization.

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