The Church

Peru Table of Contents

Although Peru does not have an official religion, the Roman Catholic Church--to which over 90 percent of Peruvians belonged-- is recognized in the constitution as deserving of government cooperation. Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church has monopolized religion in the public domain.

In the Peruvian Catholic Church hierarchy, staunch conservatives, such as Archbishop Juan Landaz˙ri Ricketts, wielded a great deal of influence. Six of the total eighteen bishops, including Landaz˙ri, belonged to the ultraconservative Opus Dei movement. At the same time, the founder of liberation theology, Gustavo GutiÚrrez, was a member of the official church in Peru, and liberation theology had a strong presence at the grassroots level. Unlike Brazil, where the official church could be described as liberal and critical of the more conservative Vatican, or Colombia, where the church was a loyal follower of the Vatican's policies, in the Peruvian Church hierarchy both trends coexisted, or at least competed for influence. Conservatives followed the dictates of Pope John Paul II, a strong proponent of theological orthodoxy and vertical control of the church. This contrasted sharply with the progressives in the Latin American church, who espoused the mandate of Vatican II, which exhorted the clergy to become actively involved in humanity's struggle for peace and justice, and to help the poor to help themselves rather than accept their fate.

At the grassroots level, the church was extremely active at organizing neighborhood organizations and self-help groups, such as communal kitchens and mothers' clubs. Church activities at this level had little to do with theoretical debates at higher levels, although they tended to emanate from the more progressive sectors within. Church-related organizations, such as Caritas (Catholic Relief Services), were active in providing local efforts with donations of food and funds from abroad. Indeed, Caritas had a nationwide network of coverage superior to or at least rivaling that of any state ministry or institution.

In addition to Caritas, the other major nongovernment organizer of communal kitchens and mothers' clubs in Lima was the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which reflected the increasing importance of the Evangelical Movement. Although only about 4.5 percent of Peru's population was Protestant, the Evangelical Movement was extremely active at the grassroots level, and, as aforementioned, was critical to the victory of Fujimori and Cambio '90 in poor areas. The Catholic Church hierarchy felt sufficiently threatened by the Evangelicals' support for Fujimori that it unofficially backed Vargas Llosa, an agnostic, against Fujimori, a Catholic.

The church, to the extent that it was an organizer of the poor, had increasingly come into conflict with the SL. Initially, the SL paid little attention to the clergy. In Ayacucho, for example, where the traditionally oriented church hierarchy had little involvement with social issues, the church was of little relevance to the SL. However, in the late 1980s, the SL's strategy shifted, and the group became more concerned with the church's organizational potential. The SL had a more difficult challenge in organizing support, particularly in areas where the church had been active in encouraging close community bonds, such as parts of Cajamarca and Puno. In such areas, as in the shantytowns surrounding Lima, clergy had increasingly become targets of SL assassinations as well.

In the face of the weakening of other state institutions, the church's role, at least at the grassroots level, had increased in importance. Caritas was the primary mobilizer of food donations and aid during the most critical stage of the Fujimori government's shock stabilization plan. Although the government promised its own social emergency programs, none materialized, and the church surfaced as the primary vehicle for channeling aid to the poor. This activity increased the visibility of the clergy as a target of SL attacks, and posed difficult choices for members of the clergy who continued to operate in the regions where the SL had a strong presence--the majority of the areas where most of the poor of Peru resided.

More about the Government of Peru.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress