Bolivian Villagers Observe Truce Following Church Demolition

( [email protected] ) May 03, 2004 09:05 AM EDT

Community officials in a remote Andean community have signed an accord with members of the local congregation of the Church of God two months after an irate mob destroyed the only evangelical church in their remote Andean community. Animists villager in Chucarasi have agreed to allow the residing Christians to continue to hold worship services in the community while evangelical Christians have pledged to “respect” traditional customs. However, the Church will not be allowed to rebuild its demolished temple.

Conflict erupted in the rural community of 300 people following the celebration of Carnaval late February. Since converting to evangelical Christianity several years ago, members of the Church of God in Chucarasi declined to take part in the Carnaval celebrations, a festival the village customarily observes with Christo-pagan rituals, dancing, and heavy drinking.

Two days after the festival, when a severe hailstorm struck the village, animist villages become convinced that evil spirits were punishing the community for allowing the Christians to abandon tradition. As a result, village officials announced a community meeting the following day, and summoned the church members to be present.

Suspecting that the village leaders would insist that they renounce their evangelical faith and return to animism, as they had done repeatedly in the past, all but one member of the church were absent for the meeting. Fortunato Bernal, an elder from the church who complied with the summons, arrived at the meeting, only to be seized and beaten until he lost consciousness.

Later, that same evening, the villagers completely dismantled the congregation’s adobe chapel with picks and wrecking bars. “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. Village leaders later insisted that the evangelical believers either renounce their faith or leave the community.

To alert denominational leaders of the crisis, Conde and Bernal traveled to Oruro. 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 the 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 evangelicals. If not, we will take the five people into custody whose names are in the police report. But I don’t want any violence.

Quispe said village leaders deliberated from 11:30AM to 6:00PM before signing the document that guarantees evangelicals the right to live in the community and continue holding Sunday services. The agreement also stipulates that the members of the Church of God must also contribute quotas of food and money to community festivals. Also, it explicitly prohibits the congregation from reconstructing its demolished chapel. To avoid further violence, the commission did not press on 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.

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) on August 30, which draws several hundred evangelical believers to Chucarasi for two days of open-air worship. “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,” Quispe added.

“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.