El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, is one of the largest air travel hubs in Latin America. And in a country where almost 80% of the population identifies as Catholic, it might seem only natural that the airport has a Catholic chapel.
But a political fight over Bogotá’s airport chapel points to emerging questions about the future of the Catholic Church in a secularizing Colombia — a country where Catholicism was the nation’s official religion until 1991.
'A neutral space of reflection'
The El Dorado Airport's Catholic chapel has for decades offered daily Mass, weekly expositions of the Eucharist, confessions, and daily rosaries to the millions of commuters passing through the airport each year.
Until recently, the chapel was open 24 hours a day for travelers and airport staff wanting to spend a few minutes in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
But on Aug. 26, while a handful of people prayed inside the chapel on a Friday afternoon, airport personnel entered to remove the chapel's Catholic imagery from the walls.
After the confusion, the airport’s management company, OPAIN, announced on social media that the chapel would be closed on Aug. 27, converted from a Catholic sacred space into a “neutral space of reflection.”
“Thinking about all of our passengers and their different beliefs, we are adapting the oratory to turn it into a space of neutral reflection, as it works in most airports in the world,” the company said in a statement published on Twitter. The statement also mentioned that the daily 11 a.m. Mass would continue.
“In the next few days, [the chapel] will be renovated into a space where all religions are welcome,” the statement added.
“This is a process that has been ongoing for months, with the knowledge of the Archdiocese of Bogotá,” the management company claimed.
'Accountable to God'
Despite OPAIN’s statement, El Dorado International Airport is not actually located in the territory of the Archdiocese of Bogotá.
It’s in the neighboring Diocese of Fontibón, led by Bishop Juan Vicente Córdoba.
Within days of the chapel’s closure, Fontibón’s Bishop Córdoba said the airport’s management company had spoken with his diocese in April about its plans, but the diocese pushed back, noting that it had a contract to operate the chapel until 2037. The diocese declined to end the agreement early, the bishop said.
The bishop also claimed that it was a Bogotá city administrator who wanted the Catholic chapel closed — he said the local government had asked OPAIN to close it, and the management company complied.
“There was no dialogue. OPAIN is an independent company, but the government asked that we be kicked out of the airport. We denounce this because it does not allow us to evangelize and take care of the people who wish to get close to God’s peace,” Córdoba argued.
The new “reflection space” does have an hour each day allotted to Catholic worship.
“From 11 to 12 we will celebrate the Mass, but we are not able to continue our 24-hour presence,” Córdoba added in an interview, nor to reserve the Eucharist.
But the bishop's statement was not the end of the story.
“OPAIN could have let us stay,” the bishop insisted.
“Those who said no will be accountable to God.”
'Why we marched'
Felipe Jiménez is Bogota’s “secretario de gobierno” - a position that functions like a city manager. The politician said in late August it was OPAIN’s decision to close the Catholic chapel, which he claimed the company did after requests from airport visitors – with no mention of government intervention.
But the mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, suggested otherwise.
The mayor threw her support behind the closure, saying Aug. 27 she celebrated the decision “in the name of freedom of worship.”
López is a controversial figure in Colombian politics. She ran for office as a progressive, but has been under fire for allegedly xenophobic comments against Venezuelans, and for controversial policies — one, which would create a police force to “identify” migrants in the city, was ultimately scrapped due to lack of support by the national government.
Local media reported that while the mayor’s office didn’t formally request the airport chapel be closed, López did recommend the idea to OPAIN.
For its part, the Fontibón diocese told The Pillar this week it will fight against the closure.
The diocese has already written to the city, a diocesan attorney told The Pillar, where officials claim they have no authority over the airport.
But the diocese has more moves to make, explained Andrés Forero, attorney for the Diocese of Fontibón.
“We believe that we can place a complaint to the Superintendent of Transportation and Ports, on behalf of the users of the airport, due to the deterioration of the services available,” Forero said.
“They claim to offer a service they do not offer anymore. According to the consumers’ law, they cannot willingly diminish the services they offer,” the lawyer added.
“However, the bishop will have a meeting with the company this week. We are looking for a direct settlement before insisting on legal actions.”
In early September, a group of Catholic lay people gathered to pray the rosary at the airport, in protest of the closure. Their protest ended when organizers placed an image of Our Lady of Fatima in the chapel, which was removed the next day.
“We were moved by the fact that OPAIN arbitrarily decided to vacate a contract with the Diocese of Fontibón to dismantle the Catholic chapel, and to sell us on the idea of a 'neutral' or 'multi-religious' spaces,” Samuel Ángel, a protest organizer, told The Pillar.
“We believe that the Catholic chapel should be respected and that if they wanted to create a different space for other religions, they should have done it somewhere else. That is why we marched. At least 2,000 people went from the old Isabel La Católica monument to the airport.”
Our Lady, Help of Christians
Amid the protests and petitions, the airport chapel has become an icon in a larger political conflict.
Colombia elected this year its first left-wing president. Gustavo Petro, once a member of a Marxist guerrilla group, ended decades of politically conservative rule in the country.
Moreover, Colombia has not been an exception to the rapid secularization which all of South America has undergone. The country is one of several in Latin America to have legalized gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia—mostly through court rulings.
Against that backdrop, some Colombian Catholics and conservative activists believe the closure of the airport chapel is part of an unfolding prospect of discrimination against the Church.
And the potential closure of another iconic chapel in the country has lent credence to their theory.
Three Colombian lawmakers — Congressmen Juan Carlos Losada, Luis Alberto Albán, and Alirio Uribe — have a proposal to close the country’s Congressional chapel, dubbed Our Lady, Help of Christians, and replace it with a neutral reflection space.
All three lawmakers are part of the majority government coalition. Albán is a member of the Comunes party, the political successor to the country’s FARC guerrilla group.
Losada, the idea’s main proponent, has claimed that a Catholic chapel in the country's legislative chambers violates the constitutional principles of state secularity and freedom of worship.
“Those who want to pray can use the neutral space or can go to the cathedral a couple of blocks away, or to the Saint Augustine Church a block away from Congress,” the legislator said recently.
In addition to its Catholic chapel, Colombia’s congressional building houses an interdenominational Christian chapel — but there have been no proposals made to eliminate it.
The closure proposal has been controversial, even among members of the government coalition. Luis Miguel López, a member of the Conservative Party –part of the majority coalition—criticized the decision.
“Congress is a place of serious work. The chapel is a place to pray and let our work and worries go. Workers and congress members use it. We cannot calculate the benefits for the soul and mental health of such a space. Only those who do not know the miracles that happen there can ask to close the chapel,” he said last week.
Senator María Fernanda Cabal, a likely presidential candidate in the next elections, is a member of the Democratic Center party –the main opposition party in Colombia.
Cabal has also criticized the proposal, saying with a hint of irony that “the next move would be to dismantle the cathedral and the churches in downtown Bogotá, to include the ‘excluded.’ Persecution disguised as good intentions.”
“The new attack against the Church in Colombia comes disguised as inclusion but it is another strategy of persecution and annulment. I invite Catholics to join in prayer and raise their voices against discrimination until the oratory is back to [the airport of] El Dorado,” she said recently.
Analysts in Colombia say it is unlikely the congressional chapel itself will be closed.
And nearly a month after it was closed, there is some chance the airport’s Catholic chapel could soon be reopened.
Since their initial statements, Neither OPAIN nor the Diocese of Fontibón have published any official updates regarding the chapel.
But Samuel Ángel uploaded a video on YouTube Sept. 9, in which he claimed that the chapel will be “reinstated.”
“It still lacks the images, but this will be our Catholic chapel,” he says in the video.
For his part, Forero, the diocesan attorney, provided The Pillar with a picture showing that an “interfaith hall” is being prepared a few meters away from the chapel. The hall can also be seen in Ángel’s video.
It is possible that airport authorities have decided to leave the chapel in its place, while designating a separate space for the “neutral” chapel — a proposal offered last month by Church officials and Catholic activists.
“OPAIN got in touch with me and I told them that we demanded they leave the chapel in its place and create a multi-religious space somewhere else in the airport. What you see in the video is that they are doing work along that line. They have not put the Catholic imagery back in the chapel but they did start a multi-religious space in a different place,” Ángel told The Pillar.
“Nothing has been reinstated yet, all we know is that they are creating a multireligious hall in a different area,” Forero explained.
The airport and Congressional chapels might stay in their place, but Catholics in Colombia remain concerned with what they believe is the start of institutional anti-Catholic persecution in their traditionally Catholic country.
Petro’s coalition enjoys a significant majority in Congress, which may allow him to, for example, tax churches, an idea that has been proposed by members of the government.
José Antonio Ocampo, Colombia's finance minister, said in August he would not discount such an idea. The proposal would also include more financial oversight of churches by the government.
Some Catholics in the country say they’re also concerned because Petro has shown reticence to condemn attacks against the Catholic Church.
Observers note that the Colombian representative to the Organization of American States was not present at an early August session, which passed a resolution to condemn the persecution of the Church in Nicaragua.
To date, the Colombian government is one of the handful of countries in Latin America which has not criticized the ongoing persecution.
The Church in Colombia faces most of the same challenges as the Church in Latin America: fewer people in the pews, fewer vocations, a growing protestant minority, and an increasing number of people disagreeing with the Church’s moral teachings.
But if some Catholics are to be believed, the Church in Colombia may soon face a challenge strange to most Latin American democracies: direct anti-Catholic attacks from government officials. If you’re skeptical, they suggest you try to find the rosary group at Bogotá’s airport.