Protestant faithful's ranks rising in Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico - It was noon on Sunday, and the air in Mexico City's Sanctuary of Faith literally hummed with religious fervor as Pastor Adrian Fernandes gripped his pulpit and began to pray.

Some 1,600 worshippers murmured rapidly, their eyes closed, their arms stretched toward the ceiling. Some people started to cry. Others clutched the seats in front of them for support.

"All of us have been called by you, God!" Fernandes shouted as a piano hit its crescendo. "Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"

Afterward, dozens of people came forward to become church members, while 130 others donned blue smocks to be baptized in a pool behind the altar. And the day's soul-saving wasn't even half over; there were four more services to go.

In the United States, an influx of Mexicans is transforming Roman Catholic churches. But in Mexico, it's Protestants who are on the rise, led by evangelical churches like the Universal Kingdom of God Church, which runs the Sanctuary of Faith.

Protestants accounted for 8 percent of Mexico's believers in the 2000 census, up from 2.3 percent in 1970. Their numbers are growing 3.7 percent each year, twice as fast as the Catholic population, according to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information Processing.

The churches are winning converts through a mix of social programs, charismatic preachers and stirring music.

"It's a true conversion experience," said Feliciano Hernández Valle, a pastor at the 3,000-member Interdenominational Christian Church in Mexico's San Simon Ticoman neighborhood. "The Catholic churches, unfortunately, offer people nothing. They have become too politicized."

Protestant churches are especially strong in rural, Indian areas of southern Mexico. Only 6.5 percent of Mexico's Catholics speak an Indian language, compared to 30.5 percent of traditional Protestants, such as Baptists or Methodists.

The churches appeal to Indian parishioners alienated by Catholic priests, who tend to be Spanish-speaking, mixed-race men from central Mexico.

"These groups have been very successful, and it's partly because they find ways of establishing indigenous people in the church leadership," said Carlos Garma Navarro, an anthropologist at Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University who has studied the growth of Protestantism.

And it's not just U.S. missionaries bringing the faith. Many of the new evangelical churches have their roots in Central or South America. The Universal Kingdom of God church started in Brazil.

As their congregations grow, many of the larger churches are setting their sights on Mexicans living in the United States.

The Interdenominational Christian Church of Mexico, for example, has churches in nine U.S. cities, including Phoenix, at 5322 N 59th Ave, and Plano, Texas. The Universal Kingdom of God Church has 34 Spanish-speaking churches in California, 11 in Florida and one in Las Vegas.