Asylum Granted To A Catholic From El Salvador Who Converted To Become An "Evangelical Christian"

by David L. Cleveland


Respondent was a Catholic while in El Salvador. At times, he invited people to church events. In December 2000, members of the MS-13 gang asked him to join them. He refused, explaining that he had "religious opposition to joining them." After that refusal, the gang started to target him on a more frequent basis. The gang demanded money and held knives to his neck.

He entered the United States in 2001, and became an "Evangelical Christian." He attends church three times per week, and "feels an obligation to proselytize on a regular basis." He joined the "Evangelical Christian Church." [Opinion at 5]

He goes to parks, hands out prayer cards, and invites people to come to church events. His religion "includes a duty to proselytize," [Opinion at 11] and that "if he were to return to El Salvador, he would still feel obligated to proselytize and to speak out against gang activity and the MS-13." [Opinion at page 3]

Dr. Harry Vanden, a professor at the University of South Florida, testified as an expert. He stated that he knew of several persons who spoke out against gangs and tried to proselytize and dissuade others from joining the gangs, who then were threatened by the gangs. People "who have spoken out against gangs in the context of religious proselytizing have been raped, forced out of their communities, or had their homes burned down by gang members." [Opinion at 11]

"He stated that if Respondent did return, Respondent would feel, as a result of his religious convictions, a duty to speak out against the gangs and that this would result in the gangs taking action against him." [Opinion at 5] Dr. Vanden further testified that since Respondent was now a member of the Evangelical Christian Church, this would "make him even more of a target for the gangs." Id.
Respondent's pastor testified that Respondent had been an active member of his church for six years, and that members of the church believe they must openly renounce all immoral behavior, and must refuse to join groups, like gangs, "that partake in immoral behavior." [Opinion at 12]

MS-13 is violent and brutal

The US Department of State and other evidence of record "points to the violent nature of the MS-13 and the brutal tactics that the gang uses to suppress opponents." [Opinion at 10]. There is "widespread violent crime" in El Salvador. Id. The country is "one of the top ten most violent countries in the world and…gangs and other criminal elements roam freely, day and night." Id. Gangs "frequently" commit murders. Id.

Gangs "continue to exercise influence within the country's prisons and judicial system…gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution." [Opinion at 13].

Journalists have been intimidated by gangs. Gangs are a "serious and pervasive socio-economic challenge" to the country. Id. Gangs "have developed complex organizational structures," and cannot be controlled by the government. Id. El Salvador is a small country; large numbers of MS-13 gang reside "throughout it." Id.

Credibility and past persecution

The Court noted that persecution is not limited to physical harm, "but may include mental suffering, or even [very] severe economic deprivation…" [Opinion at 6]. The Court found that respondent and his witnesses were credible. However, the Court also found that respondent had not suffered past persecution.

Respondent has a well-founded fear of future persecution because of his current religious beliefs and practices.
Respondent has a religious duty to proselytize; this will make him "highly visible to gang members." [Opinion at 14] He has been a model member of the United States society during the past eleven years. Respondent is granted asylum.

Comments of the author

1. Respondent is not the first person to be granted asylum as a result of his activities in the United States. The famous Mr. Mogharrabi entered the United States in 1978; about three years later he protested against his government and criticized an embassy member to his face, and was granted asylum. Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I&N Dec. 439, 448 (BIA 1987) (cited by the Court at pages 6 and7). The Fourth Circuit suggested that a man who practiced Falun Gong in the United States might be eligible for asylum. Wang v. Holder, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 17956, at *8 (4th Cir. 2012).

2. What about "evangelicals" who are currently in El Salvador? How do gangs treat them?

The International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 for El Salvador states that the country is 46 percent Roman Catholic; 33 percent "evangelical," and 1 percent as "traditional Protestant." "There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice." [at page 1].

Do "evangelicals" suffer more than Catholics? The Department of State is silent on this subject. So was the Arlington VA Court. Your Court may not be.

3. What is an "evangelical"?

To evangelize is "1] to preach the gospel to; 2] to convert to Christianity." ( . "Evangelical" has six meanings. The first two: "1. Of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels; 2. Protestant." Id.

"Proselytize," a word used about 15 times by the Court, means "1. to induce someone to convert to one's faith; 2. to recruit someone to join one's party, institution, or cause." Id.

The Court did not use the word "Protestant" in its opinion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, claiming 4.2 million members in the United States, is a corporation with a constitution. Mark Hanson is its Presiding Bishop, It does not publish a catechism; however, it publishes a "Confession of Faith." I believe most Americans deem this church to be Protestant, and NOT evangelical.

The Iglesia Luterna Salvadorena [the Salvadoran Lutheran Church] is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. Are its members "evangelical"?

Pope Benedict XVI opened a discussion on the meaning of the word "evangelization" on October 8, 2012. He said "the role of the Church is to tell others about the life of Jesus, and at its very core, that is the role of the new Evangelization." (www. )

Neither the Department of State nor the Court explained the difference between Catholics, Protestants, and "evangelicals." You should ask your client how he would define the terms.

Are "evangelicals" in the United States different from "evangelicals" in El Salvador?

A research project: what does Mara-13 think about these different groups?

About The Author

David L. Cleveland a staff attorney at Catholic Charities of Washington, DC, was Chair of the AILA Asylum Committee (2004-05) and has secured asylum or withholding for people from 39 countries.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) alone and should not be imputed to ILW.COM.