COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (Morning Star News) – After years of inaction, federal prosecutors in Argentina are pursuing criminal charges against perpetrators of religious persecution against an evangelical church in Rio Tercero, Cordoba.
The prosecution follows a May 29 judicial ruling that declared the long-running campaign of threats, vandalism and violence against the Pueblo Grande Baptist Church “a clear violation of the law, the National Constitution and international treaties incorporated in it that pertain to freedom of religion.”
“The fact that the federal court has initiated an investigation into this case is a victory,” said the church’s defense attorney, Alejandro Zeverin. “The fact that it has gone on for so long is a disgrace.”
Zeverin told Morning Star News that he agreed to assume the defense of the Pueblo Grande church and its pastor, Marcelo Nieva, 36, because he was convinced the case represents a clear abuse of religious liberty.
“I decided to defend this evangelical pastor and his church—even though I am a Roman Catholic myself—because we are dealing with an abuse of human rights,” he said. “This is increasing in Argentina with the rise of organized crime.”
Troubles surfaced in Rio Tercero several years ago after the Pueblo Grande congregation opened the Transit Home for Women, a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, substance abuse and sex trafficking.
The church’s outreach ministry angered local criminal gangs who profit from drug trafficking and prostitution, according to Pastor Nieva. He and his flock became victims of death threats, insults and a misinformation campaign. Opponents of the ministry sought to paint the Baptist church as a “cult” that “brainwashed” women and children who sought shelter at the Transit Home.
One night in June 2014, a “protest march” descended on the church. Assailants pelted the temple with rocks and bottles, and spray-painted the word “secta” (equivalent to “cult” in English) on the façade.
A more serious incident occurred on the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2014, when unidentified gunmen sprayed Nieva’s passing car with 9mm bullets. The minister and his passenger, Daniel Carreño, an active lay leader in Pueblo Grande church, escaped injury in the attack.
For the greater part of their married life, the Nievas have endured constant insults in public and death threats from anonymous callers.
“It has been hard, very hard,” Pastor Nieva said. “When my wife was pregnant, we would have to leave our house and take refuge in the home of another brother for weeks at a time, or we would go stay with my parents.”
When the Nievas’ first child was born in March 2014, they began receiving threats against the baby’s life, an experience Pastor Nieva described as the most traumatic.
“But my wife is a godly woman,” he said. “She never pressured me. She never said that we should leave. She’s been my pillar of strength throughout.”
The threats and violence put Jorge Ferrari, managing secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Convention of Argentina, in a tough position as he sought to support the Nievas.
“We thought long and hard about what counsel we should give Pastor Nieva in regard to the aggression,” Ferrari told Morning Star News. “At one point we thought that the only thing to do, as the Word says, was to shake the dust off our sandals and leave the city. But as things went on, we came to see that Pastor Nieva had a strong calling to work in a community that at the time was unresponsive to evangelization. It was obvious that we could not invalidate his call and the fortitude he displayed to serve his community.”
While the threats and violence escalated, Rio Tercero policemen looked the other way – or else joined in the harassment. Officers conducted searches of the church and Transit Home premises on the pretext of looking for “cultic” items or signs of “abuse.”
The conduct of law enforcement authorities reinforced suspicions that gang members had bribed or infiltrated the local force to bend officers to their will.
Carolina Rivarola and Natalia Ramirez, two residents of the women’s shelter, testified to federal prosecutors of police impunity extended to persecutors of Christians in Rio Tercero. In November 2014, a speeding minivan nearly ran over the two women as they were returning from the grocery store. Assailants then jumped from the vehicle, began striking and kicking the women and repeatedly banged Ramirez’s head against the concrete curb.
Passersby saw the incident and came to the women’s aid as the attackers fled the scene. A few moments later, police officers arrived. Instead of aiding the women or recording a report, however, officers mocked the victims, accusing them of fabricating the attack. “Nothing happened here,” the officers allegedly told bystanders who had witnessed the incident.
For more than three years, law enforcement authorities did “absolutely nothing” to stop the mounting violence against Pueblo Grande church members, according to Ferrari.
“I made countless trips to the province to talk with Cordoba police officials,” Ferrari told Morning Star News from his office in Buenos Aires. “The conversations were cordial, but always simply protocol. They never took action, or offered our members protection, or launched an investigation into what was happening.”
Ferrari and Pastor Nieva sought other recourse that proved equally fruitless. They appealed to the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI), a government watchdog agency tasked with protecting the rights of minority groups. INADI officials declined to intervene.
Seven local attorneys refused to defend the church or else resigned soon after being hired. Pastor Nieva attributed their reluctance to threats from criminal gangs or fear of damage to their careers.
Pueblo Grande’s fortunes began to change when Zeverin assumed the church’s defense. A prominent Córdoba lawyer with an international reputation for expertise in criminal jurisprudence, he pressed for action from the Federal Circuit Court in Córdoba to the office of the Attorney General of Argentina.
Action came in the form of the May 29 federal judicial decision, in which justices ruled that the harassment of Pueblo Grande church represented a clear violation of Argentine Law 23.592, “Penalization of Discriminatory Acts,” and constitutional guarantees of religious liberty.
The court’s decision produced immediate beneficial effects for Christians in Rio Tercero. In August, officers of the Argentine National Gendarmerie, an elite corps tasked with fighting drug trafficking and terrorism, took up 24-hour guard at Pueblo Grande church. The incidents of violence and vandalism have diminished.
The court informed INADI officials of its decision and directed the anti-discrimination agency to join the investigation of human rights violations in Rio Tercero.
Federal prosecutors have collected ample evidence to incriminate perpetrators on that score. Their ruling cites Rio Tercero’s local newspaper and radio station as contributors to the hate campaign for running ads encouraging local citizens to join the June 18, 2014, “protest march” against the church.
Justices determined that numerous Facebook posts urging Rio Tercero residents, to “kill all the sons of [expletive] in that church” and “put a bullet in [Nieva’s] head,” constituted hate speech.
If Pueblo Grande’s persecutors are convicted, they would face stiffer penalties than usual. Law 23.592 mandates a one-third to one-half increase in sentences for felons whose crime “is committed with intent of persecution or hatred of a race, religion or nationality.”
Perhaps the best news for the Christians in Rio Tercero—and for Christians across Argentina—is that law enforcement authorities are finally conducting a criminal investigation that should bring offenders to justice and discourage persecution of religious minorities in the future.
The District Attorney’s office in Villa Maria declined to tell Morning Star News of progress in the investigation, explaining that the case has proceeded to the “secret summary” stage during which public officials are not allowed to comment.
Under Argentine jurisprudence, before bringing criminal charges, prosecutors must first notify suspects of their intention to indict them and allow sufficient time for the defendants to hire lawyers and begin preparing a defense.
Pastor Nieva said that, until the perpetrators of the Rio Tercero hate campaign and the people who tried to take his life are brought to justice, he and his church are still at risk. Nevertheless, he said the long ordeal that he, his family and the congregation have endured has been worth the distress.
“This is something historic; there has never been a case like this before,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to hold a national debate on the laws that protect religious equality in Argentina.”
Pastor Nieva thanked God for supporters who have rallied to defend him, his family and his congregation. Yet he admits that the unrelenting pressure has taken a toll on the Pueblo Grande church. Attendance at worship has steadily dwindled.
“People left, that is to be expected,” he said. “The most amazing thing about the majority of those who have stood firm is that they are newborn Christians. They were born again under persecution and they love Jesus. They intercede for the community. We think this is going to have great impact on this city.”