What role will Protestants play?


Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002

In August 1973, PDC president Patricio Aylwyn, forced out of an easy middling position, came to a crucial realization: He told The Washington Post that if he had to decide between "a Marxist dictatorship and a dictatorship of the military, I would choose the second." With Christian Democrats finally giving up on an alliance with the left, the Chamber of Deputies on Aug. 22, by an 81-47 vote, declared that Allende "from the very beginning has persisted in pursuing total power, with the obvious purpose of submitting everyone to the strictest economic and political control of the State, and implanting thereby a totalitarian system absolutely opposed to the democratic and representative system established by the Constitution."

The Chamber declared that "the Government has indulged not in isolated violations of the Constitution and the law, but has made of these a permanent pattern of behavior, reaching the extreme of systematically ignoring and trampling the attributes of other branches of government." Therefore the legislators reminded military leaders of their oaths to uphold the Constitution and asked them to take steps to "channel government action along legal paths and thereby assure the constitutional order of our country.... If they do these things, [the military leaders] will perform a valuable service for the Republic."

What did all that mean? Allende complained that the Chamber was "promoting a coup d'etat," which was exactly what it was doing. Some three decades later Hermogenes Perez de Arce, a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1973, sat in his cool, dark office remembering what happened. "We all knew he was violating the Constitution, violating civil liberties, and we believed only the military could save the Constitution." Even some on the left agreed with that; the National Democratic Party, which had supported Allende in 1970, announced a "press campaign directed at the armed forces appealing to them to put an end to the state of economic collapse."

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Military leaders had been thinking about their duty for months, and the legislative request concentrated their thoughts. Twice before in periods of political and economic chaos, in 1891 and on Sept. 11, 1924, they had deposed a government. On Sept. 9, the heads of the army, navy, and air force agreed that since Allende refused to resign, he must forcibly be sent into exile, and they agreed to move jointly on Sept. 11. As it turned out, they were acting just in time: Allende supporters the following week planned to assassinate the top generals and admirals, take over radio stations, and eliminate any opposition, using smuggled-in armaments that, according to the PDC's Eduardo Frei, were "superior in quantity and quality to those of the army."

Most of Chile's cultural forces are not very different from what they were three decades ago. One has grown immensely in potential influence during that period: Protestantism. Alberto Dib from the Word of Life Bible Institute speaks of how Chile has changed: "Twenty-five years ago parents"-never expecting to run into a Protestant-"would ask, 'Aren't you Roman Catholic?' Today, you find people in key positions who are Protestants."

Mr. Dib works in the municipal schools, where he and his colleagues teach Bible classes, organize youth meetings, and train students in evangelism and discipleship. They gain attention in the schools through a multimedia presentation of the real-life story of a couple that did drugs, came down with AIDS, became Christians, and died; then Rev. Dib and others speak about the gospel for 10-15 minutes. Word of Life during January and February (Chile's summer) runs a well-maintained, swimming-pooled youth camp 13 miles south of Santiago that brings in 300 students per week. Rev. Dib said the only institutions that stymie him are the universities, where work is very difficult because professors are "very humanistic" and generally hostile to Christ.

A drive around Chile's two largest cities attaches some real places to those census statistics. A "Church of the Kingdom of God" theater-turned-church in Valparaiso proclaims on its marquee, Jesucristo es el senor ("Christ is Lord"). A storefront church in Santiago proclaims that it is the home of Dios y Amor ("God and love"). Another building is the office for a jail ministry-and that's where church growth often starts for Chilean Pentecostals. Three of every 10 persons incarcerated in Santiago's massive, 4,000-inmate prison are said to be evangelicals.

That statistic cuts two ways, revealing as it does many prison conversions but also failure among some who accepted Jesus as Savior to also understand Him as Lord. And yet, Catedral Evangelica de Santiago, the largest Protestant church in Chile, reports that 1,300 of its members have come out of jail and are doing well. The Catedral, flagship church of a fast-growing denomination, La Iglesia Metodista Pentecostal de Chile, has over 50,000 members, taught by 552 pastors and preachers. Nationwide, the denomination claims some 5,000 preaching points and several million members.


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