Most Americans presume that Mexico is a Christian country, unaware that many Mexicans who identity as Catholic regularly practice a form of pagan idolatry, according to Universidad Cristiana de Mexico President Jaime Castro.
Castro leads an evangelical Christian university in Querétaro, Mexico. As Mexican Christians share the Gospel, they often face persecution from Mexican traditionalist Catholics, he told The Christian Post.
Unlike Christianity, traditionalist Catholicism relies on giving gifts to the gods in exchange for health, good fortune and protection from evil. They often participate in animal sacrifices to the gods and worship saints, incorporating practices from pagan Aztec beliefs.
“I was a pastor, and I have the experience to know some American Catholics. They weren’t like [Mexican Catholics]. The syncretism between Catholics that came to Mexico adopted every idol and every goddess [from the Aztec religion],” he said.
Castro told a story to illustrate the difference. Once, a Catholic parish in the U.S. noticed that it had many Latinos in the area. Leaders brought in a bilingual priest and invited Hispanic Catholics into the American Catholic church. Three-hundred-and-fifty new people arrived.
“The shock came when the Día de los Muertos happened. Catholic seniors were scared about what the [Hispanics] were doing in their parish — idols and skeletons and offerings and all these rites that were not biblical. It’s just to show Latin American Catholicism is very different,” he said.
Syncretism worships Catholic saints as pagan gods, said Castro.
People give saints offerings to get favors. Cartel members usually make offerings to saints who have a reputation for granting success for both evil and good actions.
The Catholic Church has officially condemned devotion to Mexico’s most infamous cartel “death saint,” Santa Muerte. However, Mexican Catholics worship other saints as an expression of syncretism. Some argue that Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe represents an Aztec mother goddess, but Pope John Paul II canonized the man who allegedly first had a vision of her.
Syncretist Catholics who worship saints are responsible for almost all the persecution against Mexican Christians, said Castro. Although evangelical Christianity has been in Mexico for 120 years, it still faces hostility from local Catholic communities. The government may allow religious freedom, but local people often ostracize, threaten or attack Christians. The worst persecution happens in remote areas where the government cannot exert its power.
Christian advocacy group Open Doors USA's World Watch List ranks Mexico as the 37th worst country for Christians to live in due to the high rate of persecution of believers. The threats surrounding the Church include secularist pressure, syncretist persecution and cartel violence. Persecution in Mexico increased in 2020 because COVID-19 hampered the Mexican government from using its power to protect believers.
Mexico has three main religious zones, said Castro. Most evangelical Christians live in the south, Catholics dominate central Mexico, and northern Mexico is increasingly secular and materialist due to the influence of American culture.
“[The state of Oaxaca] has a lot of mountains, many isolated communities, and it’s hard for the government to establish safety for Christian missionaries. Some are killed, some get expelled from their villages. That still happens in Oaxaca and Chiapas. It also happens in Central Mexico and Hidalgo,” he said.
Small towns in Mexico have many Catholic festivities. A community leader will ask each local family for money or resources to support the festival. When evangelical Christians refuse to support it, town authorities refuse to provide them with community resources like public school, he said.
“They do not allow Christians to receive any services from the community if they don’t support [Catholic festivals],” he said. “That’s against the law, but it’s happening. An evangelical church tried to hold a revival two years ago and asked to rent the city hall. They quickly answered, ‘no.’ Why? ‘We don’t have a permit for you.’ The next weekend the Catholic church had a festivity.”
Despite these setbacks, the percentage of Mexican evangelical Christians has grown by 49% since 2010. According to a survey Castro cited, 11.2% of Mexicans now practice evangelical Protestantism. According to the Joshua Project, that figure is 10.39%.
Catholics in Mexico don’t call themselves “Christians,” the pastor said. But the knowledge they already have of the Christian faith gives evangelists much to work with. Sycretists already know the basics of the Christian faith, he said, adding that they need to turn from transactional saints to a personal God.
“When you want to do door-to-door evangelism, almost every door you go to knock on has a sticker that says, ‘This home is Catholic. We do not accept propaganda from other religions,’” said Castro. “Evangelical Christians are doing a great job and the Gospel is being spread. The most optimistic people will tell you that we are within 15-to-20% evangelical Christian in Mexico.”
When people convert from traditionalist Catholicism to Christianity, their families change for the better, he said. Catholicism in Mexico forbids divorce, but it doesn’t teach married men how to be good husbands. Often, they spend money on alcohol and have affairs with other women. Some men even have secret second families.
“[When men become Christians], the home becomes strong and they have more opportunities,” said Castro. “The head of the house used to spend a lot of money on alcohol, on parties. But now he becomes more committed to his marriage and becomes a committed father, a committed husband, and it makes a difference in the community.”
Living a responsible life has such a significant impact that families become financially better off, he argued. Castro’s parents were missionaries and the community where they ministered accused them of paying people to convert because people had more money when they left Catholicism.
Evangelical Christianity also brings real knowledge of the Bible and a community that supports believers, he said. New Christians rejoice for the opportunity to learn about and understand the Bible.
“They don’t understand why the Catholic churches don’t preach so people understand. In Catholicism, they don’t have a fellowship. You walk in. You walk out. You don’t talk with anyone. Evangelical churches in Mexico provide a fellowship,” Castro said.