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Religious Row Endangers Guatemala. Catholic Church lashes out at fast-growing evangelical sects as political opportunists. CHURCH FEUD

JUST when Guatemala desperately needs to heal the wounds from the most violent period in its history, a religious conflict is slowly ripping the country apart. The feud between the fast-growing Protestant evangelical movement and the once-dominant Roman Catholic Church is hampering rural development. It is further polarizing national politics. And, say leading Catholics and evangeli-cals alike, it could be leading to outright religious war. (From 2 percent of the population 30 years ago, the proportion of evangelical Christians has soared to nearly 35 percent.)

In January, the Catholic Church responded to the rapid rise of conservative evangelical sects with a stinging pastoral letter. Disregarding its own less-than-gentle ``conquest'' of the Mayan Indians here in the 16th century, the church depicted evangelicals as US-funded, Army-favored opportunists bent on destroying Guatemalan culture.

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``The letter is meant to send out an alert to let people know problems exist,'' says Efrain Hern'andez, chief spokesman for the Catholic Church. ``If those problems don't get resolved, it could lead us to a confrontation.''

But the church missive has only added fuel to the fire.

``The pastoral letter is strong and abusive,'' says an angry Antonio Sandoval Aguilar, an Army captain who serves as president of the Association of Evangelical Ministers. ``We only seek peace. But how can we sit back and allow them to discredit us like that?''

Indeed, the pastoral letter does not only charge evangelicals with weakening Guatemalans' sense of family, community, and cultural identity. It concludes that the rise of evangelical sects is ``more a part of an economic and political strategy than an authentically religious interest.''

Evangelicals have responded by going on the attack.

Edmundo Madrid, head of the Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella group for several Pentecostal sects, claims that the Catholic church is ``trying to influence the state and control the population.'' Catholic leaders, he says, ``would love to keep idolatry, fetishism, alcoholism, machoism, all that they defend as `traditional.'''

The alliance is considering a tit-for-tat response to the pastoral letter. Some analysts worry about the impact of such an exchange - especially at a time when they say Guatemala needs to build a consensus to lift itself out of a decade of war and impoverishment.

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``For the Catholic church to come out with this letter just before the national dialogue [in late March] is dangerous and ill-advised,'' says Vitalino Similox Salazar, a Presbyterian minister. ``It comes at the worst moment, when we most need to talk of agreements, not differences.''

But at this point, both sides seem to be wrapping themselves in a religious absolutism that leaves no room for change or concessions.

The evangelicals, who see Catholics as unsalvageable sinners, are growing so fast that they see no need to discuss a d'etente. The Catholic church, which views evangelicals as unpardonable heretics, sees only one ``solution:'' reduction of evangelical proselytizing and reestablishment of Catholic growth and supremacy.

Such intransigence in the churches' upper echelons often translates into a damaging antagonism on the local level, where communication and sharing can determine the success of a development project.

The religious splits ``drive a wedge into small communities,'' says a long-time rural development specialist. ``With divisions in the community, how can you achieve any kind of development? It's impossible ... The entire development process is beginning to slow down.''

The quagmire also stems from vastly different concepts of development.

Unlike the Catholic church, which maintains that salvation comes through ``good works,'' evangelical sects see salvation as the mere acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's personal Saviour. They place the burden of changing the world on God, not on the church institution.

Some critics argue that this passive, individualist attitude makes economic progress impossible. Says one mainstream Protestant preacher: ``A country made up of 30 percent evangelicals is never going to develop.''

But evangelicals say their presence - and their US dollars - have spurred rural development, especially in zones of conflict. Near the northern town of Nebaj, missionary Paul Townsend - himself dedicated to boosting literacy in native languages - sits outside a shiny new medical center built by a coalition of US-based evangelical churches.

Using some of the most modern equipment in Guatemala, he says, a team of 17 doctors and nurses flown in for a week is treating long-neglected patients. The only problem: Due to lack of personnel and organization, the hospital will go virtually unused for the rest of the year.

Diverging philosophies on community organizing have also led to confrontation. For example, Father Ventura Lux - one of the Catholic church's first indigenous priests - was hounded out of the Chichicastenango parish after organizing local Indian communities and conducting a mass for widows of men allegedly killed by the Army.

More than 1,000 evangelicals surrounded the church last July to protest Father Lux's ``communist'' activities. He was removed the following week.

``I wake up at night and worry that we are going to have a religious war,'' says lawyer Jorge Skinner-Klee, an opposition member and prominent Catholic. ``We have to find a way to adapt. We have to find a way to live together in peace.''

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