This Reformation Day, 18 of Argentina’s 24 provinces will celebrate evangelical and Protestant churches.
Evangelical leaders hope that someday soon, the whole country will join in.
Last month the federal government moved closer to nationally recognizing October 31 in honor of these communities when the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill that has since headed to the Senate.
“For many evangelicals, appearing on the country’s public legislative agenda is very important. It responds to an aspiration for visibility in the community,” said Viviana Barrón, rector of Baptist school Seminario Internacional Teológico Bautista. “Years ago, many said that our churches were practically invisible to governments. That has been changing and is received with joy by many.”
“In our country, evangelical Christians are second-class citizens,” said Joel Issachar Stefanini, president and founder of the Federación Iglesias Pentecostales Autónomas.
“We have been fighting for more than 40 years, since democracy arrived again in our country, to be recognized as a Christian church and to have equal rights.”
Many evangelical leaders have been frustrated as to what they interpret as a 150-year-long state snub toward their community.
According to CONICET, Argentina’s national scientific research council, the evangelical community grew from 9 percent to 15.3 percent of the population between 2008 and 2019. The same report put the Catholic community at 62.9 percent. (Argentina has 46 million people.)
Argentina’s Supreme Court has ruled that the country has no official or state religion. But although its constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also states that “the Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith.”
While this relationship has been renegotiated over time through various laws and court cases, its most lasting manifestation has been a national worship registry implemented in 1979 during one of the final years of the country’s dictatorship. Under this law, the Catholic church does not have to register with the government. Meanwhile, all non-Catholic religious groups must register in order to enjoy privileges such as not paying municipal taxes.
“The progress of the bill is good, but that only confirms that we have a very uneven dynamic with respect to the Catholic church, which is the one that holds religious political power and official support from the Argentine State,” said Ana Valoy, a pastor and political analyst from the northern city of Tucumán.
Argentina is known for its cultural and religious diversity, wrote Renata Viglione, a Christian psychologist who co-authored the current bill, in 2021.
“Therefore, it is inexplicable that several centuries after the arrival of the first Protestants in Argentine territory, [and given the] public recognition of the contributions made by the Argentine evangelical community as a whole, and the right to religious equality guaranteed by the national Constitution, we are still waiting for the first national evangelical commemorative day,” she wrote.
In 2017, Entre Ríos became the first province to institute an annual day of commemorating the Protestant Reformation—on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses—thanks to the efforts of local Christian leaders.
“For the first time, we are officially recognized as a religion,” Carlos Duarte, a pastor in the Iglesia Evangélica del Río de la Plata (Evangelical Church of the River Plate) denomination, said at the time.
The current legislation began at the initiative of citizens like Viglione, who reached out to lawmakers all the way back in 2014. While numerous provinces and municipalities have since adopted their own proclamations and laws recognizing evangelicals, it took years for Viglione and her colleagues to educate the Argentine church about the proposed bill and for the different political parties to agree on what language they would support for the initiative.
“I am optimistic that the Senate will discuss the project in the next session and approve it,” said Dina Rezinovsky, one of three evangelicals in the 257-seat Chamber of Deputies, who co-sponsored the bill along with three of her Catholic colleagues.
For Argentine evangelicals, political recognition validates the nation-building work they have committed to for decades.
“Since the beginning of our nation, evangelicals have collaborated in the progress of the country through teaching principles and values that emanate from the Bible and through founding schools, nursing homes, orphanages, rehabilitation centers for drug addicts, and helping the most neglected sectors of society,” said Ciro Pablo Crimi, who leads Seminario Bíblico de Fe.
Among other things, Argentine taxes help support the salaries of bishops and priests, says Crimi, and evangelicals’ frustration with this arrangement has at various times led them to organize more formally in opposition.
In September 1999 at the obelisk in Buenos Aires, 250,000 evangelicals gathered under the motto Jesucristo por todos y para todos (“Jesus Christ for all and to all”). They requested a religious freedom law that would ensure equal treatment of faiths, notes Crimi. Two years later, 400,000 evangelicals gathered again in September under the motto “For my country, I want religious equality.”
“God’s justice demands equality without discrimination or exclusions,” he said.
While this type of recognition is validating to a community with a history as long as that of evangelicals, Jesus’ teaching cautions his followers about the danger of public recognition. Seeking the approval of others can disqualify people as ministers of Christ, and believers should seek to please God, not others, says Ruben del Ré, who is the head of the Sociedad Bíblica Argentina.
“Our purpose must be aligned with what our Lord clearly taught in the Sermon on the Mount: that men, seeing our good works, glorify God,” he said. “So it is not about public recognition of our work, nor about achieving greater social prestige. The church of Christ will never need that.”
Further, establishing a day celebrating Protestants and evangelicals is easier than changing the religious freedom law. Congress tried multiple times to do so from 2001 to 2019, noted Rezinovsky.
“Legislators do not want to deal with the reform of the religious freedom law that dates back to the 1970s. This type of decision can be seen as a way to calm the underlying discussions that have not taken place,” said Barrón. “We continue to wait for a country where belonging to a religious group does not give privileges to anyone. But there is a long way to go for that.”
Viglione sees the growth of October 31 celebrations and the current legislative success of her bill as a step forward in redressing the government’s imbalanced relationship with non-Catholic faiths.
In Argentina, “we freely profess our faith, we can freely speak on faith, we can organize gatherings. … In that sense, there is absolute freedom,” she said. “But we needed equality, and I think that’s what they finally realized.”