By Clifton L. Holland and J. Gordon Melton

Last revised on April 23, 2002

Argentina is on the southeastern part of the South American Continent, separated from its Western neighbor, Chile, by the Andes Mountains. Both the Andean and the Patagonian regions were inhabited by large indigenous groups at the time of the Spanish colonization. The influx of Christianity has all but wiped out the indigenous religion of the native peoples of Argentina, but it survives in the more remote areas along the Andes Mountains and along the border with Bolivia and Paraguay. In the last half of the twentieth century, shamans among the Guarani people in the Province of Misiones have attained a status as alternative healers, and the sophistication of Guarani religious thought has been recognized by anthropologists.

In 1502, Americo Vespucio commanded the first ship of Spanish sailors to arrive at the mouth of the La Plata River. Argentina was first settled by the Spanish in 1516, and the first Catholic missionaries arrived by 1539. Argentina gained its independence in 1816 after the commercial bourgeois ousted the Spanish Viceroyalty of the River Plate. Most Argentines today are descendants of the European immigrants (mostly from Spain and Italy but also from Russia, Poland, Germany, England, Ireland, France, Portugal, Armenia, Lebanon and Turkey) who arrived between 1870 and 1950. Among them is found the largest Jewish community in South America and the fifth largest in the world.  There are about 1,050,000 indigenous peoples mainly in the north and southwest, many of whom continue traditionalist religious practices.  The current total population of Argentina is estimated at 37,031,802 (April 2000).

The Roman Catholic Church was established in Argentina with the arrival of Franciscan monks in 1536. Their work was supplemented by the Jesuits in 1586. The Jesuits were especially active among the native people. The expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 placed the church in a leadership crisis that was merely deepened by the forces that created an independent Argentina in 1810. The new ruling elite was both anti-Spanish and anti-clerical. Its opposition to the Catholic Church was manifested in an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) to establish an independent Argentine Catholic Church. At the end of the nineteenth century, the country was reported to be 99 percent Catholic and Catholicism was the State religion.

The Catholic Church was strengthened by a century of heavy immigration (four million from 1850 to 1950) from predominantly Catholic European countries (Poland, Ireland, Italy and Spain).  In addition, a number of Ukrainian Catholics also arrived and constitute the largest of the several Eastern Rite communities now present.

Today, freedom of worship is guaranteed for all Argentines by the constitution. The Roman Catholic Church maintains its official status, and adherence to Catholicism was a requirement for eligibility to the offices of president and vice-president of the republic until the constitutional reforms of 1994. In 1995, the country was about 90 percent Catholic, the Protestant population totaled only about seven percent, and other religious groups or the non-religious comprised about three percent.   In 1992, the Ministry of Cults and Foreign Affairs listed 2,986 registered religious groups:  1,790 were Evangelical groups, about 400 were Catholic or Orthodox organizations (mainly religious orders and institutions), 382 were listed as "diverse spiritual cults," and 387 were of Afro-Brazilian origin.

The early presence of Protestantism (1800s) was due in large part to the immigration of English Methodists, Scottish Presbyterians, German and Scandinavian Lutherans, Italian Waldensians, Welsh Protestants, German-Russian and French-Swiss Baptists, Armenian Congregationalists, Dutch Mennonites and Dutch Reformed, among others. Today, at least nine branches of Eastern Orthodoxy exist, and there is a small Anglican presence. Missionary efforts by Anglicans (Church of England) and Presbyterians (Church of Scotland) began in Argentina in 1824, ministering to English and Scottish immigrants in their own languages in Buenos Aires. The Anglican work is now incorporated into the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. The Methodist Episcopal Board of Missions began work in Buenos Aires in 1836. In the 1850s, Anglican missionaries (later, the South American Missionary Society) began work among the Indians of the Patagonia and later of the Chaco in northern Argentina. During the late 1800s, new Protestant missionary efforts were begun among the Spanish-speaking population: Christian Brethren (1882), Salvation Army (1882), Seventh-Day Adventist Church (1894), Christian and Missionary Alliance (1895), South American Evangelical Mission (1895) and Regions Beyond Mission (1899).

Dozens of other Protestant mission agencies arrived during the early 1900s, notably the Southern Baptist Convention (1903), the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ (1904), Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1905),  the Assemblies of God (1914), the Mennonite Church (1917).

In 1995, the estimated size of the Protestant non-Pentecostal denominations in Argentina was as follows: Seventh-Day Adventist Church (64,400 members), the Evangelical Baptist Convention (44,800), Christian Brethren (34,800), Evangelical Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod, 21,100), and the Anglican-Episcopal Church (11,000).  All other non-Pentecostal Protestant denominations had less than 10,000 members in 1995.

Today, Pentecostals (about 70 percent) outnumber all other Protestants in Argentina, due to substantial church growth resulting from revivals in the 1950s (Tommy Hicks Crusade) and the 1970s (Charismatic Movement). The largest Pentecostal denominations in Argentina in 1995 were the following: National Union of the Assemblies of God (118,000 members), Vision of the Future (111,000), Swedish-Norwegian Assemblies of God (82,700), Italian Christian Assemblies (44,400), Chilean Evangelical Pentecostal Church (36,300), Foursquare Gospel Churches (28,100), Church of God (Cleveland, TN-22,200), Christian Pentecostal Church of God (21,100) and the United Evangelical Church of Argentina (20,500). All other Pentecostal groups had less than 20,000 members in 1995.

Many of the older Protestant churches had been involved in the multi-national Confederation of Evangelical Churches of the River Plate, which was replaced by the Argentina Federation of Evangelical Churches (known as FAIE) in 1958.   Today, the churches associated with the larger Protestant ecumenical community are members of FAIE, which is related to the Latin American Council of Churches (known as CLAI) and the World Council of Churches (WCC).  Many of the more Conservative Evangelical groups are related to the Federation Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches in the Republic of Argentina (known as FACIERA), which is affiliated with Latin American Evangelical Confraternity (known as CONELA) and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEF).

Other non-Protestant Christian groups in Argentina include the Jehovah's Witnesses (1,630 kingdom halls with about 110,000 members), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (550 temples with about 88,400 members), the Family (formerly known as Children of God), Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity, Light of the World Church (Guadalajara, Mexico), Voice of the Cornerstone Church (Puerto Rico), and Growing in Grace Churches (Miami, FL).

Like the Orthodox community, the Jewish community of Argentina is the largest in South America.  The first Jews were Marranos, escaping from their hidden position in Spain, and Sephardic Jews still form a significant and visible portion of the community.  Jews from Germany, North Africa and the Balkans began to arrive in large numbers in the 1860s, and the first Eastern European Jews arrived in 1889.  Today, more than 300,000 Jews reside in Argentina, about two-thirds of whom live in Greater Buenos Aires. They have their center in the Representative Organization of Argentine Jews.   Jews of Iberian origin (an estimated 60,000 to 100,000) have formed the Central Sephardic Community.  Eastern European Jews representing Conservative Judaism have formed the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary.

The same migrations from North Africa and the Middle East that brought Jews to Argentina also brought a minority of Muslims who formed mosques in Buenos Aires and Mendoza and have now adopted a missionary stance vis-à-vis the Spanish-speaking population.

Some of the other religions that exist in Argentina today include Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha'i and Japanese sects.  Buddhism entered the country through the immigration of Japanese, which has steadily increased through the twentieth century.   The following Buddhist groups are present in Argentina:  Japanese Soto School (Tangen Daisetsu lineage), Sokka Gakkai Internacional, Internacional Zen Association (Paris, France), Buddhist Community Seita Jodo-Shinshu Honpa-Honganji, Kagyu Dak Shang Choling, Shobo An Zendo and the Tzong Kuan Buddhist Temple.  The Church of Perfect Liberty, founded in Japan, also exists in Argentina. Hindu groups include the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (Raja Yoga), Vendanta Society-Order of Ramakrishna, Krishnamutri Foundation, Sawan Kirpal Ruhani Mission (Science of Spirituality), Vaisnava Mission, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (also known as Hari Krishna), Ananda Marga Yoga Society (The Way of Perfect Happiness), and the Supreme Master Ching Hai Meditation Association.  The Baha'i Faith has grown steadily in the last half of the twentieth century.  At least two Japanese religions exist:  The Church of Perfect Liberty-Kyodan (it claims to be an independent international religion, unrelated to Shintoism, Buddhism and Christianity) and the Church of World Messianity (a Shinto sect). 

Native Amerindian religions (Animist) have declined in recent years but are still practiced by the Chiriguano as well as by the Guaraní- and Quechua-speaking Bolivians who work on the sugarcane plantations in northern Argentina.

Several varieties of Afro-Brazilian religions have existed in Argentina since the mid-1960s, initially among Brazilian immigrants but now among the general population.  The Afro-Brazilian religions include the following:  the Center of African Religion (Ile Afonxa Xango e Oxum Leusa), the Xango Aganyu African Temple, Candomblé and Umbanda.

Western Esoteric groups are commonplace in Argentina.  The Panamerican Spiritualist Confederation (influenced by Frenchman Allan Kardec) was founded in Buenos Aires in 1946 and includes affiliated members in Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Mexico.  Other Ancient Wisdom-Psychic-New Age groups include:  the Universal Gnostic Movement (founded by Samuel Aun Weor in 1977 in Mexico), the Grand Universal Fraternity (founded in Venezuela in 1948 by Serge Raynaud de la Ferriere), New Acropolis Cultural Association (founded by Jorge Angel Livraga Rizzi in 1957), Siloism (founded in the 1960s by Mario Rodríguez Cobo, known as Silo), the Basilio Scientific School (founded by Blanca Aubreton in 1917), Schools of the Fourth Way (influenced by George Gurdjieff), the True Spiritist Society, the Theosophical Society, the Anthroposophical Society (followers of Rudolf Steiner), the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (followers of Rev. Sun Myung Moon), the Church of Scientology, Raelian Religion (founded in France by Claude Vorilhon, known as Rael), and numerous Flying Saucer-Extraterrestrial Study groups.


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