The constitution guarantees religious freedom and the separation of church and state; however, the Roman Catholic Church has been a powerful institution in Honduras since colonial times. As a result of various tensions between the church and the state throughout the centuries, in the 1880s the Roman Catholic Church was stripped of some of its economic and political power. Nevertheless, in the twentieth century the church has remained an important social actor, and the vast majority of Hondurans have remained Roman Catholic. Church schools receive government subsidies, and religious instruction is part of the public school curriculum.
The Roman Catholic Church in Honduras launched an ambitious evangelical campaign in the 1950s. The program's aim was to invigorate church membership and encourage more active participation in church activities. By the 1960s and 1970s, this activism had grown among certain sectors of the church into denunciations of the military's repression and the government's exploitation of the poor. This social activist phase in the Roman Catholic Church ended after large landowners in Olancho brutally murdered ten peasants, two students, and two priests in 1975. After this incident, the government took measures to dissuade the more activist factions in the church from continuing their actions. Expulsions and arrests of foreign priests took place, and some peasant centers with ties to the church were forced to close. The Roman Catholic Church retreated from its emphasis on social activism during the last half of the 1970s but resumed its criticism of government policies during the 1980s.
Protestant, especially evangelical, churches have undergone a tremendous growth in membership during the 1980s. The largest numbers are found in Methodist, Church of God, Seventh Day Adventist, and Assemblies of God denominations. These churches sponsor social service programs in many communities, making them attractive to the lower classes. The evangelical leadership generally exerts a conservative influence on the political process.
Although Protestant membership was estimated at only 100,000 in 1990, growth of Protestant churches is apparently seen as a threat by Roman Catholic leaders. Instances of criticism leveled at evangelicals by Roman Catholic leaders have increased; however, such criticisms have generally been ineffective in stemming the rise of converts to Protestant denominations.
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