A young church leader is unwittingly caught up in a security dragnet, arrested, falsely accused and imprisoned. Another church youth leader is shot and killed when security forces open fire on peaceful protestors. In the same country, the military surrounds a cathedral where over a thousand peaceful protestors have sought refuge after fleeing tear gas and violence at the hands of security forces.
What is happening in Venezuela today shows how religious groups can become caught up in larger political movements, sometimes despite their best efforts to remain neutral and disengaged from politics.
Once religious groups find themselves in situations like these they can be forced out of their neutrality, putting them in opposition to powerful forces; this in turn can lead to violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) as the authorities crack down on what they perceive to be rebellious religious groups.
Unprecedented political change
In January Venezuela’s National Assembly, the democratically elected legislature, organised protest marches across the country. At one of these marches in Caracas, Juan Guaidó, leader of the National Assembly, was declared interim president when the legislature invoked the Constitution after declaring Nicolás Maduro’s presidency illegitimate. The result of the 2018 presidential election was rejected by the opposition and most Western governments because the leading opposition parties were banned from participating.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched in cities and towns across the country in support of the opposition. Security forces used tear gas on some protesters, and local human rights organisations said that 14 people were shot dead during the protests.
One of those killed on 23 January was Wilmer Mendoza, a youth leader at the First Baptist Church in Barinas. He was participating in the peaceful march when the security forces opened fire. The same day, Gregory José Pérez, Executive Director of the National Baptist Youth Union of Venezuela, was arbitrarily detained in Yaracuy state when security forces went house to house looking for members of the opposition.
Gregory had not been participating in the protests, but had been forced to leave an internet café when the owner shut it down after becoming concerned about marches outside. He sought refuge in the home of a friend nearby but was taken by the police and imprisoned along with about thirty other individuals, including children. On Sunday 27 January he was taken to a hearing where he was told that he would remain in prison while the public prosecutor gathered evidence against him on charges of terrorism, criminal association, the use of explosive devices, obstructing a public road and resisting authority. On Friday 16 February Gregory was unexpectedly released, but he will still have to attend a court hearing on 24 February, at which the charges against him will be examined.
Religious groups respond
In response, the Baptist Convention of Venezuela has issued an unprecedented series of statements and called for solidarity with Gregory at the national and international level. In doing so, they are putting themselves in a position of criticising Maduro’s administration, and there are serious concerns that this could make things more difficult for anyone associated with the Baptist church in Venezuela.
The Catholic Church has been increasingly outspoken against the erosion of democracy and abuse of human rights by the Maduro administration in recent years, but as an institution with historical roots and massive cultural significance in Venezuela it has been difficult for Maduro to attack it directly, although it is clear he holds little affection for the Catholic hierarchy.
Protestant churches which are smaller and often lack strong central structures are more vulnerable. Some are pursuing inter-denominational unity as a way to stand strong against any attack by the government.
Some protestant groups that have historically had close relationships with Maduro’s government, and Hugo Chávez before that, have made public endorsements of Maduro’s claim to power. This has also provoked a reaction from others, angry that the political endorsements by groups like the Movement of Christians for Peace have been reported as if they spoke for all Protestants.
It appears that neutrality is a fast disappearing option for religious groups in Venezuela and this will likely have repercussions for FoRB.
“If we, as Christians who yearn to live in justice, look at the reality of our nation, we cannot remain silent.”
On 31 January the president of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela published a strong statement:
“Caracas, January 31, 2019
Declaration of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela
On January 30, 2019, the Movement of Christians for Peace held a politically biased event in the city of Caracas.
In this context, and in my capacity as President of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela, we once again declare that the evangelical people are not politically belligerent, and we have as a fundamental principle the separation of the Church from the State, even though as individuals we have the freedom of free choice and expression.
Consequently, we do not recognize the statements of any religious representative or movement as if they speak for all evangelical people in general.
We want to express our deep concern and pain over current issues such as: the cases of children and young people deprived of their liberty without any explanation; the high level of political conflict; the failure to satisfy the basic needs of the most vulnerable populations.
If we, as Christians who yearn to live in justice, look at the reality of our nation, we cannot remain silent.
The crisis has led us to a state of social disintegration and inequality, especially affecting children.
In the words of Habakkuk, Chapter 1, verse 4, justice is not done with truth, and so it comes out warped; whether in politics, economics, in business and in social life, we see with alarm the diabolical use of lies, theft, corruption, oppression, infidelity; that is, a lack of social justice. God calls this nation to live in justice and justice is to live in righteousness with God.
These are facts that continue to impel us to pray and cry out to God and to work for all with faith, love and with the hope of a solution consistent with this sensitive and sad situation.
To postpone decisions regarding the direction of our country will only extend the suffering of its inhabitants to the detriment of their quality of life and an uncertain future for all levels of our society. The situation has become unsustainable, and demands changes in the country for the good of all.
May the peace and reconciliation of our country be brought about by the actions of men and women of good will.
God and history will demand of us the exercise of faith, justice and truth.
May God bless our nation
Pastor Samuel Olson
President of the CEV”
By CSW’s Joint Head of Advocacy Anna-Lee Stangl