Colombia Ordinance Could Force Church Closures

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Evangelical leaders in Bogotá, Colombia, say they've been unfairly targeted by a new city ordinance enforcing building updates -- and that it could lead to the closing of their churches.

The ordinance requires all churches in the Colombian capital to reinforce church structures, make them handicap accessible and update their operating licenses.

But evangelical Christians in the city say the rules don't apply equally to Catholic churches.

"Ninety percent of the Christian churches don't meet the ordinance requirements because the majority are neighborhood churches," Bogotá City Council member Carlos Perez explained.

"We have problems because the churches that have been operating have been built in houses," Pastor Hector Pardo of Faith Tabernacle added. "Now they're asking that they have earthquake-proof foundations. They'll have to demolish the whole house, destroy the temple, with money they don't have. And if we don't comply with these requirements they'll close them down immediately."

Pastor Pardo said he believes the biased ordinance is meant to stop the growth of the evangelical Christian community in Colombia.

"We noticed that there was a lot of concern that the evangelical churches were growing so much," he claimed. "There are congregations here with 50,000 people, with 70,000, 150,000. So there was a lot of concern."

"The traditional church in this country put on pressure to stop this advance," he added. "There's the intention of blocking the growth of the Christian community in Colombia."

But Bogotá Planning Director Edilma Mariño said the process behind the ordinance was open and included several church leaders.

"The master plan was developed jointly with representatives of the different churches," he said. "Everything in the master plan was done together and all were in agreement."

Catholic officials say the ordinance affects them, too. They argue that their churches have older structures and should be exempt from the city's more severe requirements.

"To start some serious construction would threaten the cultural historical heritage of the city," Bogotá archdiocese German Oviedo said. "The District Authority must bear in mind that they are churches built in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s."

Meanwhile, evangelical leaders are fighting to protect their congregations.

"We've approached the Ministry of the Justice of the new government which has given us a lot of support," Pardo said. "We have asked for a revision of the Master Plan for Churches. It's on the agenda and we hope it will happen soon."

Otherwise, church meetings could become less common in Bogotá after year's end.

**Originally published September 3, 2010.

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CBN News Senior Producer Stan Jeter specializes in Christian news and Latin American coverage.  He has lived and worked for many years in South and Central America, most recently developing the Spanish Christian news program, Mundo Cristiano.  Follow Stan on Twitter @StanJeterNews and "like" him at Facebook.com/StanJeterCBN.