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Tuesday, October 13, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Defy `Sects,' Pope Tells Latin American Catholics -- Bishops Warned Of Protestant Evangelical Plan

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - Pope John Paul II opened a key Latin American bishops meeting yesterday sounding alarm bells over the phenomenal growth of Protestant evangelical groups in the region, which he likened to "voracious wolves" threatening the Roman Catholic flock.

In his opening speech to the IV Latin American Conference of Bishops, a that is to set policy for Latin America's Roman Catholic Church for the next few years, the pope also said he hoped the fall of communism in Eastern Europe would move people in this hemisphere "to make the logical deductions about the ephemeral value of such ideologies."

Reflecting the Vatican's concern over the growing numbers of Latin American Catholics who are defecting to Protestant evangelical churches, the pope called on the more than 250 cardinals and bishops attending the conference to launch a "new evangelism" effort to reverse the trend.

"The new evangelism is the central idea that will be discussed in this conference," John Paul told the leaders of 22 Latin American bishops' conferences attending the meeting. Previous bishop conferences in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia and 1979 in Puebla, Mexico, had focused mostly on social issues such as the church's commitment to the poor.

Referring to Protestant evangelical groups as "sects," the pope urged Latin American church leaders to "defy the expansion and aggressiveness" of them. He also suggested that the evangelical groups, mostly financed by members in the United States, were following a "clearly defined strategy" to divide Latin American countries by undermining their common Catholic culture.

The pope said the "gains made by the sects" reflected in part a failure by the Roman Catholic Church to reach the people. The "new evangelism" campaign should move priests to get out into the homes of the people and allow a more active participation of the parishioners in church decisions.

In what some bishops interpreted as a veiled criticism of the United States, the pope said, "one cannot underestimate a clearly defined strategy whose objective is to weaken the ties that link Latin American countries, and to thus undermine the strength that is born from unity." He added, "Large economic resources are being spent to fund persuasion campaigns, whose goal is to break Catholic unity."

Left-of-center Catholic groups have maintained that the U.S. government is sponsoring or helping well-financed evangelical groups in Latin America, which tend to be politically conservative. Many mainstream church officials have come to share these suspicions.

"I am convinced that the U.S. government is either directly or indirectly helping these sects," said Monsignor Hector Gutierrez, a Colombian bishop who is the spokesman for the conference. "The U.S. government has a political interest in keeping Latin America divided and weakened."

U.S. officials deny any involvement in the alleged evangelical design to divide Latin Americans.

Between 25 and 50 percent of the Catholics in some countries such as Guatemala, Brazil and Chile have defected to Protestant evangelical groups over the past 20 years, according to conference sources. The number of Protestant evangelicals in the region has grown tenfold to more than 40 million over the past two decades, the sources say.

Criticizing those who still support Marxism in Latin America, the pope said the recent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe "has demonstrated that certain ideologies that deny the truth about God and the truth about man make it impossible to build a society with a human face." He did not mention any country by name.

The 72-year-old pope is to return to the Vatican tomorrow, after a six-day trip here to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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