MEXICO CITY — At Mexico's oldest church, The Basilica of Guadalupe, the faithful walk on their knees over a concrete path to ask for blessings from the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their spouses take their hands to guide them as their children follow quietly behind. Inside, they sit in the pews, listening with their heads bowed to the solemn words of a priest as the soft light of candles lit for saints glows behind them.
On the other side of town, parishioners of the Union Evangelical Church stand under a white plastic tent behind a small, unremarkable building. They clap, dance and sing to upbeat gospel music, led by a small man shouting words of affirmation over the harmonies.
For hundreds of years, religion in Mexico has meant the stained glass windows and kneeling worship of the city's large Roman Catholic cathedrals. Change has come to Mexico, however: Evangelical Protestantism has taken firm hold in the soil of the world's second largest Catholic country.
In 1950, 98 percent of the population of Mexico was Catholic, compared with 87 percent of the nation's 110 million people today, according to the national census. Some experts also think that these numbers don't reflect the true population of evangelical Christians, because in cities such as Mexico City, people are reluctant to say they've deviated from their traditional family values.
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In Mexico, the term evangelicals includes virtually all non-Catholic Christians. Evangelical Christians are defined by their personal commitment to Christ and their strict following of the Bible above all else. The faith is growing most quickly in rural areas such as Chiapas, Mexico's poor southernmost state, which borders Guatemala. In Latin American countries such as Guatemala that once were virtually all Catholic, evangelical populations have reached an estimated 25 percent.
"Here in Mexico, Catholicism is the most popular, but many people are torn in trying to find a new religion," said Yolanda Rendon, a historian who's been working at The Basilica of Guadalupe for 15 years. "But the truth is that the Catholic Church is getting worried because evangelical churches are gaining a bigger following."
Part of the growth of the evangelicals is attributed to U.S. influence. American missionaries established many evangelical churches in the region, and many Mexican emigrants bring back American religious influences when they return.
There are other reasons, as well: The new denominations appeal to young people, who're attracted by the variety of youth programs in the evangelical churches. Many young people say they find the Protestant churches more accessible and welcoming.
"One of the main things that really attracts people to the evangelical church is the religious atmosphere is more happy; there's music and more activities done in the community," said Pida Elias, a history and religion professor at the Cuernavaca campus of Tecnologico de Monterrey who's studied the growth of evangelicals. "It attracts many young people and lets the people choose their religion and gives them leeway on how they want to worship."
That there's a competition at all among denominations in Mexico isn't apparent at first glance. There are homemade shrines made of candles on street corners and rosaries around the necks of many of the women, and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to the ice coolers in nightclubs.
Rendon estimates that 60,000 people visit the basilica on an average Sunday, and while the church sees its share of tourists, the majority of visitors are Mexicans.
The overwhelming majority of Mexicans are like Margarita Palmenera, raised in the Catholic Church and still committed to the faith. Visiting the basilica on a recent Sunday with her elderly mother, sister and daughter, Palmenera was looking for help and protection.
"My mother is getting an operation, and we came here to ask for the Virgin to watch over her," she said. "I think the Catholic Church is still very strong, and my faith in God and the Virgin keeps me going. I know that times are changing, but I believe that no matter what, the Catholic Church will always be the strongest church in Mexico."
However, more and more visitors are like Eduardo Dominguez, a 23-year-old college student who acknowledges the attraction of evangelical Protestantism even though he's reluctant to sever his ties with the Catholic Church.
"I would never change my religion because of the tradition of my family and my culture," he said, "but as I've gotten older I've realized there are a lot of things in Catholicism that I don't agree with. For instance, it's very conservative, and instead of focusing on God and worship, a lot of things end up becoming political and about money."
Many who share Dominguez's sentiments belong to the Iglesia de Nazareno, the Church of the Nazarene, a thriving evangelical church that holds meetings every Sunday evening for young people to socialize.
On a recent evening, young members of the church were playing volleyball on the bright purple court of a downtown sports park. Younger children sat on the swings beside the court as older church members sat on yellow picnic tables, talking and laughing.
"Evangelical churches are popular among younger people because I think that there are more activities that are focused on the youth in evangelical churches," said Claudia Rodriguez, a youth pastor. "Of course there are activities for the youth in Catholic churches too, but within the evangelical church, we really make an effort to meet the necessities of the young people in our city."
She said that this kind of openness and accessibility was key to the growth of the evangelical churches.
"The people are seeing that it's easy to come to these kinds of churches, which are less conservative, and find friends in the church who are always willing to help you," she said.
Patricia Patino, a 23-year-old who was playing volleyball with her friends, said the church was becoming more popular because it paid attention not only to religion but also to the needs of the people.
"From what I can see, there are many differences in the evangelical church and the Catholic Church," she said. "To start, the Catholic Church has a lot to do with the politics of the Vatican, money and what is best for the priests. Evangelical churches are becoming more popular because the Mexican people are seeing that the church is really helping people in need and pushing people to finding the word of God, something that isn't as prevalent in Catholic churches."
(Davis graduated this month from Penn State University. This story was reported for a class in international journalism.)
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