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Whose God Rescued the Chilean Miners?

4 years ago
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As the dramatic rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped more than 2,000 feet underground wound to a happy, indeed miraculous ending, one of the great and emblematic lines of the saga was delivered by a miner who sent a letter up on Tuesday, the day before he made the journey to the surface.

"There are actually 34 of us," 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez wrote, "because God has never left us down here."

Amen, a watching world would agree.

But now the question has become, exactly whose God was down there with Jimmy Sanchez and the others?

Different churches are laying claim to inspiring divine intervention in the remarkable rescue, giving short shrift to the impressive technological achievement of the Chilean engineers (and a giant U.S.-made drill) in their efforts to get a leg up on the competition for souls in South America's newly diverse religious marketplace.

"God has spoken to me clearly and guided my hand each step of the rescue," said Carlos Parra Diaz, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor at the San Jose Mine in Chile's mountainous Atacama Desert. "He wanted the miners to be rescued and I am His instrument."

A Pentecostal and an evangelical pastor also worked the site, and American evangelicals with the Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ sent each of the miners an MP3 player containing the entire New Testament and "The Story of Jesus," the audio adaptation of the famous "Jesus Film."

Diaz and his Seventh-day Adventist colleagues also managed to send tiny Bibles with magnifying glasses down a communication tube, and, as the Guardian of London put it, Diaz "stole a march over his rivals" by obtaining permission to give a 10-minute talk to the assembled families on the surface before their nightly briefing by government officials.

"I do macro work. I am pastor to all," Diaz told the British newspaper. The other churches, he said, did "micro" work.

But some denominations seemed contented with their share, however modest.

The Baptist Press, the news service of the U.S.-based Southern Baptist Convention, touted reports that two miners became Christians -- by which they mean evangelical Protestants -- during the underground imprisonment, and that when the mine collapsed, just three of the men "were Christians."

That characterization seemed to overlook the fact that the majority of the miners were at least nominally Catholic, as evidenced by the story that one of the first things the miners' relatives did after the collapse was to set up a statue of St. Lawrence, the patron saint of miners, at the mouth of the mine. Indeed, the entire rescue operation was dubbed Operation San Lorenzo.

Moreover, when contact was made with the miners, they also requested that statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints and religious pictures be sent down, in addition to a crucifix. "The miners want to set up a section of the chamber they are in as a shrine," Chile's Minister of Health, Jaime Manalich, told CNN.

And the miners all signed a flag that was ferried up and sent to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.

Given such a longstanding cultural heft for Catholicism in Chile, the local bishop, Caspar Quintana, could perhaps afford to take the high road when reporters asked him about the religious competition. "What matters is that God is acting through human ingenuity to rescue these men," Bishop Quintana said.

On the other hand, non-Catholic churches are continuing to make inroads in Chile -- which is now 70 percent Catholic, with a booming Protestant and Mormon minority -- as well as in other traditionally Catholic countries across Latin America. Guatemala, for example, is now believed to be a majority Protestant nation, and Brazil and other once overwhelmingly Catholic countries in South America are also becoming more diverse.

This has led to growing competition among all churches, and the Chilean mine disaster was seen as a prime opportunity to witness to the faith. Chileans and people around the world were transfixed and inspired by the drama, with at least one miner claiming to have seen an angel during the 70-day ordeal and many others noting the fact that there were 33 miners, the same number of years Jesus walked the earth.

The miners themselves were the chief testimonies to the religious fervor the mine drama evoked.

"I've been near God, but I've also been near the devil," Mario Sepúlveda, the second miner to be rescued, said as he celebrated on reaching the surface. "God won."

Which God, however, is still an open question.

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