- (Photo:Reuters/Ulises Rodriguez)
Christians who evangelize in some of El Salvador's most dangerous areas pose a threat to gang members who ambush them as soon as they step foot in their neighborhoods to verify that they are a part of a church and not undercover police posing as evangelicals.
"For years, we have evangelized without any problems in the neighborhoods of Soyapango and we have even managed to lead some gangsters in the right path," said Antonio, a man who did not want to be fully identified for security reasons, according to Noticiacristiana.com. "But in recent months the situation has been complicated and gang members have guaranteed that if we do not have a badge with our name, photo and logos of our church, they will not allow us to enter the area or they can kill us."
In some cases, territorial gangsters in the city of Soyapango approach Christians who willingly enter the area and ask them to recite at least five Bible verses and sing gospel songs to ensure their true identity or else they run the risk of getting killed.
Although evangelizing Christians are not banned from entering these areas, gangsters keep a close eye on their every move. Pastors from the surrounding neighborhoods have also been warned through written requests from gangsters to equip their members with proper badges.
Antonio says he was once approached by one of four gangsters who were following him while he went from house to house preaching and was asked what his intentions were for being in his territory.
"My answer was blunt, 'we're here to talk about the word of God,'" said Antonio. "And he was also clear in his response and said, 'We don't mess with the children of God, but you can also be a policeman walking around to see what we are doing.'"
Similar scenes are common throughout the small Central American nation and in some rare cases, gangsters follow Christians as their own unrequested bodyguards against others who might want to harm them.
Though evangelicals have complied with gangster's warnings, they are hesitant to preach in other areas because each neighborhood is claimed by rival gangs who are unfamiliar with their gospel spreading efforts.
In areas outside of Soyapango, Christians face the risk of unwillingly becoming a part of a gang's activity while evangelizing, and often times gangsters demand to borrow their cars to transport drugs.
Due to the risk of being murdered, Antonio says their efforts to evangelize in neighborhoods have been gradually diminished especially when young adults take to the streets to preach, they are seen as targets by gangsters aiming to recruit them.
However, overtime, some gangs have become receptive to Christians since they recognize their efforts that have produced positive change within their communities.
Antonio said his church's response to gangsters has been to rely on the Bible verse of Matthew 5:10, but he emphasized that they also take precaution to avoid risking their lives.
El Salvador currently has over 14,000 gang members who belong to the notorious MS-13 gang, which originated in Los Angeles and now has a predominate presence in Northern Virginia, where they are mostly known for theft and trafficking drugs. In El Salvador, the gang is known to be more violent and focused on murder and human trafficking.