Guyana, The Catholic Church in

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The Co-operative Republic of Guyana, along with neighboring Suriname and French Guiana, occupies an area in northern South America between the mouth of the Amazon and the Orinoco River that was once known as Guiana. Formerly a colony of Great Britain, Guyana is bordered on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by Suriname, on the south by Brazil and on the west by Venezuela. The marshy coastal region to the north rises to inland plains and thence to densely forested mountains in the west and south. Numerous rivers run through Guyana, and the climate is tropical, marked by rainy seasons and flooding in summer and winter. Agricultural products include sugar, rice, shrimp and timber, while natural resources include bauxite, gold and diamonds. The population is highly diversified and includes a large proportion of East Indians. Guyanese Catholics are predominately people of Portuguese descent. Hinduism and Islam also have large numbers of followers, the majority being East Indians, though a few blacks are Muslim. Many Guyanese also practice the Caribbean Rastafarianism or Obeah religions, often in conjunction with another faith.

History. English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who in 159596 made the first investigations into Guyana, was followed by the Dutch, who also did some exploring in the same decade. The first Dutch colony in Guyana was a trading post established c. 1616, while the Dutch West India Company founded the colonies of Berbice in 1624, and Essequibo and Demerara in 1645. The wars of the late 17th century devastated all European colonies in Guiana, and the upheaval continued through the colonial rivalries of the 18th century and the Napoleonic Wars. The division among European powers was regularized in the conventions and treaties of 1814 and 1815, with Great Britain losing its hold over neighboring Suriname but making Guyana a crown colony in 1831.

After the British took control of the region in 1813, only the Church of England and the Church of Scotland were tolerated in Guyana, and in 1825 the parishes were arranged by alternation between the two Churches. After 1899, however, all religions were extended equal legal status and Guyana received her first native bishop in 1971. On May 26, 1966 the region was granted its independence and it became a republic on Feb. 23, 1970. Under the new socialist government, schools were nationalized in 1979, and the economy was heavily controlled. Through the Guyana Council of Churches, a faith-based Christian coalition, Catholic leaders became increasingly outspoken with regard to government policies. A new constitution was implemented on Oct. 6, 1980, after which restrictions on private religious schools were relaxed and eventually abolished. A coalition government elected in the late 1980s implemented a freemarket economy designed to promote an upturn in employment and improve the overall standard of living in the country.

Despite government efforts, drought and political instability resulted in continued economic problems through the end of the 20th century. In addition, the country was burdened by interest payments on large amounts of foreign aid loaned by industrialized nations. In 1999, 20 percent of Guyana's foreign debt was forgiven by the nations holding such debt. The Vatican, which had encouraged such an action through its Jubilee 2000 campaign, while noting its gratitude also expressed disappointment that the forgiven amount was not more. However, the release from some debt service, plus other reform measures, signaled an economic upturn by 2001.

Despite an improving economy, at the beginning of the 21st century Guyana remained among the world's poorest nations. However, it maintained a long history of religious tolerance and the government allowed all faiths to worship freely. In 2000 Guyana had 24 parishes tended by four secular and 50 religious priests. Also working among the faithful were 15 brothers and 132 sisters, who served by teaching at the country's 102 primary and 63 secondary schools or providing other humanitarian aid, such as medical efforts to cope with the spread of AIDS. The Church-run newspaper, the Catholic Standard, was praised for its continued efforts to promote social and political awareness as well as reinforce Church doctrine. Of concern to Catholics within Guyana was the legalization of abortion in 1995, and the Catholic Standard publicized the continued efforts of the nation's churches to overturn that law.

Bibliography: r. t. smith, British Guiana (New York 1962). b. n. moore, Cultural Power, Resistance, and Pluralism: Colonial Guyana, 18381906 (Toronto, 1995).

[j. herrick/eds.]