Latin American Protestants build bridges with Pentecostals

By staff writers
February 21, 2007

The main Protestant grouping of churches in Latin America, which for years was seen as a religious embodiment of left-wing politics, began its six-yearly gathering in a Pentecostal church in Buenos Aires with a lively worship service - writes Peter Kenny for Ecumenical News International (ENI).

About 700 people crammed into the Christian Biblical Churchon 19 February 2007, under the charge of Pastor Hector Osvaldo Petrecca whose congregation turned out in full to show members of other Christian confessions how they worship with gusto.

The opening service for the 19-26 February conference of the Latin American Council of Churches, which is more commonly known by its Spanish acronym, CLAI, began with guitar-led folksy songs that had congregants swaying, many with their hands stretched high.

A lone Greek Orthodox priest who arrived wearing his traditional headgear was the only cleric in a cassock. A representative of the Roman Catholic bishops' conference in Argentina was in a two-piece suit like some of the Lutheran and other traditional Protestants.

Pastor Petrecca is a minority voice for Pentecostals on the central committee, or governing body, of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC), made up mainly of Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches.

Several delegates noted how the Latin American church council has in recent years moved closer to the mushrooming Pentecostal and Evangelical churches which are outstripping the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholics churches in membership growth.

The immediate past president of CLAI, the Rev Walter Altmann, a theologian from the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, who is now moderator of the WCC central committee, commented on how the engine for church unity in the region, ecumenism, is changing.

The political presence at the service was low key, but serious, in the mixed suburb that has working class bungalows next to more luxurious mansions, one inhabited by national hero Diego Maradona, the soccer star.

The Argentine federal government whose president, Nestor Kirchner, is said to be a strongly secular person, sent the national secretary of religious affairs in the department of culture to deliver a speech.

Guillermo Olivieri in his speech noted that most of the world's worshipers defy the stereotypes given to them by religious extremists. He said CLAI had long been recognised for the "richness it has represented in its diverse traditions" and in its "commitment to strengthen dialogue between different expressions of Christianity and non-Christians".

Olivieri said, "We live in a time in which the main religious factor appears related to violence and fanaticism. Obviously, the many voices and actions of those fanatics and those minorities have made an impact that frequently leads to an erroneous interpretation of the pure spirit of the majority of believers who assume a religious commitment."

But some of those attending the CLAI assembly said they were worried there appeared to be no recognition on the agenda of key social, economic and political issues that weigh on residents of Latin America.

[With acknowledgements to Ecumenical News International -]

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