COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (Morning Star News) – A local church reaches out to victims of substance abuse, opens a shelter for battered women and works to rescue minors from prostitution and sex trafficking.
In most places in the Americas, such compassionate community service wins admiration and respect, sometimes even an award from the mayor’s office. In Rio Tercero, Argentina, this kind of activity just might get you killed.
On the evening of Oct. 21, an unidentified gunman pumped multiple rounds from a 9 mm handgun into the passing car of Pastor Marcelo Nieva in an apparent attempt to assassinate the 35-year-old pastor of Pueblo Grande Baptist Church.
Providentially, neither Pastor Nieva nor his passenger, church member Daniel Carreño, suffered injuries in the attack.
In their report to federal police the following day, Pastor Nieva and his attorney, Alejandro Zeverin Escribano, accused “paid hit men with ties to drug traffickers who have infiltrated the Cordoba police, and who seek vengeance for our pastoral action” of carrying out the assassination attempt.
Christians suspect the pastor may have been targeted in part for helping a single mother in a custody dispute. Pastor Nieva told Morning Star News he is not about to back down from his ministry to drug addicts and victims of abuse, nor from the fight for justice.
“We are struggling and working to uncover the truth of the facts,” he said. “We firmly believe that truth overcomes lies and the light will always vanquish darkness.”
Troubles started for the pastor in 2010, when a 23-year-old, single woman known as “Belen” sought help for herself and her unborn child at the Transit Home for Ladies, a shelter the Pueblo Grande church operates for women fleeing domestic violence and prostitution.
The child’s father was insisting that Belen abort her baby. The mother managed to resist his pressure and gave birth to a healthy girl. The man reluctantly accepted his paternity of the baby only after DNA tests established that he was the biological father.
When the baby was 2, the father sued Belen for custody. Police unexpectedly detained the young mother, accused her of physically abusing the toddler and threatened to take her child away. This happened without officers obtaining a judicial order or filing formal charges against Belen, according to Pueblo Grande church members.
The incident fueled suspicions that the father had enlisted local police to intimidate Belen, according to Pastor Nieva. When he stepped in to defend the young woman’s rights, he became the target of threats, police harassment and media defamation, he said.
A local district attorney ordered police raids on Pueblo Grande Baptist Church and the Transit Home for Ladies, as well as on Pastor Nieva’s private residence.
The pastor found himself facing charges of illicit association, illegitimate privation of liberty, enslavement, fraud and violent abuse.
On Oct. 15, Pastor Nieva, attorney Zeverin and elders of Pueblo Grande church met with the Minister of Government of Cordoba, Walter Saieg, and Américo Romero Camaño, secretary of Culture and Worship. They complained to the provincial officials about the harassment campaign in Rio Tercero and the “passivity” of local police.
A week later, Pastor Nieva narrowly escaped assassination.
Forensic measurements revealed how close Nieva came to death behind the wheel of his Renault minivan. One 9 mm round struck a vertical beam of the car frame and lodged in the vehicle’s interior. Had the bullet not deflected off the metal beam, it would have hit Pastor Nieva in the head or neck.
The Federal Court of Cordoba immediately assigned security agents to protect the pastor and Carreño. Zeverin expressed concern that the protection order did not go far enough, and he called for a full investigation of the crime and for prosecution of those responsible.
The attempt on the pastor’s life reinforces suspicions in the Argentine Christian community that his quest for justice is exposing merely the tip of an immense iceberg of corruption involving police, politicians and criminal gangs in Rio Tercero.
His enemies have managed to exploit a controversial legal measure in Cordoba to conduct their persecution of Pueblo Grande church. In 2011, legislators passed Provincial Law No. 9891. Entitled “Provincial Program for Prevention and Assistance to Victims of Groups Employing Techniques of Psychological Manipulation,” it has subsequently been dubbed the “anti-sect” law.
The legislation grants social workers and law enforcement officials authority to investigate religious “cults” and assist “victims” whom they determine have been “damaged” by participation in such groups.
Church leaders and legal experts criticize the vaguely written legislation as a potential weapon to abuse – rather than uphold – the human rights of Christians.
Area Christians say this has certainly happened in Rio Tercero, where local authorities have repeatedly categorized Pueblo Grande Baptist Church as a “sect” in newspaper reports of the conflict. In fact, the congregation is a member in good standing of a Protestant Christian denomination with a 105-year history in Argentina and 900 local congregations across the country.
Pueblo Grande members claim that authorities have invoked Law 9891 to harass the congregation for conducting a ministry to abused women like Belen. No other province in Argentina has adopted such a measure, nor does one exist at the national level. Evangelical Christians across Argentina are calling upon the federal government to overturn Provincial Law 9891.
Even before the assassination attempt, national and international human rights organizations had voiced support for Pastor Nieva.
The Montevideo-based Life Mission for the Nations, which investigates human rights abuses against vulnerable populations, published an open letter calling on Argentine authorities to end the “atmosphere of religious persecution and harassment” in Rio Tercero.
“Let fundamental human rights be respected and defended in Argentina,” the document concludes. “To allow this corruption today is synonymous with legalizing impunity tomorrow.”
Pastor Nieva said he has done nothing that should elicit attacks on him or his ministry.
“We have done no other thing than preach the gospel,” he said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”